The Miskito Coast
The years travel fast, and time after time we done the tell. But this ain’t just one bodies tell. It’s the tell of us all. An’ you gotta listen and ‘member. ‘Cause what you hears today you gotta tell the newborn tomorrow.
We’s lookin’ behind us now. Into history back. We sees those of us that got the luck and started the whole thing. And we ‘members how it led us there. One look and we knewed we’d got it straight. Things beyond our imagination. Even beyond our dreaming.
Time counts and keeps counting. And we knows now, finding the trick of goin’ ain’t no easy track. But we gotta travel it, and there ain’t nobody knows where its gonna lead.
Still, in all, every night we does the tell. So that we ‘member who we was and where we went. But most of all we ‘members the road who finded us. And the lights of the village. An’ now we keeps our lights lit. For all of ‘em that are still out there. “Cause we knows the’ll come a night they sees the distant lights, and they’ll be comin’ home.
During the years of the last half of the ‘80s, we enjoyed scores of sweet adventures. Throughout that time, the children matured in both experience and age, becoming rodsmen and apprentice travelers. After the memory of our most recent rumbo had waned, we began to search for newness. It was time to move on.
So we began to search for freshness. Maps were perused and admired. These colorful graphics generated memories and dreams, the past and the future. Books were consulted. These produced knowledge and contemplation. Opinions were sought. These spawned both certainty and confusion. All these ingredients were poured into our yearning urn and we began to concoct a proper measure. Gradually our potion for adventure was blended and spiced, and finally it began to boil and brew. As it cooked, our lives were tickled by wisps in the wind that signaled to us that adventure approached. At times we thought the potion cooked to completion, but upon the lifting of the lid, we discovered that the spice had not matured. So we continued to taste and add and wait, hopeful that one day the brewing would be completed, that our destination for adventure would expose itself.
We knew that the cooking of our potion was our vessel for drifting, that eventually we would finish the brew, landing at our right spot. We knew that only by drifting would we find anything at all. Furthermore, we knew that we would not really find anything, rather that our spot would actually find us. Our potion was our guide, our means of placing ourselves in a good position to be found. Drifting, waiting to be discovered.
Our searching carried us all over the world. We considered east Africa and northwest Africa, and Venezuela, El Perú and Ecuador, and the West Indies, and Panamá and Costa Rica and Guatemala. We looked for the right weather and the right sport fish. We avoided the places that others had already made famous, and this eliminated many options. For we are explorers, travelers to the new, and the known holds no attraction to those of us cursed and blessed by this insatiable urge to seek.
The spices in our potion were harshly rigid. They permitted no tourist hotels nearby, which eliminated spots mentioned in most fishing magazine. Our spices demanded overland travel by public transport, a language other than English, a culture distinct from wealthy Western, a locale not considered a destination except by those tasting our potion.
Inexorably the field of options narrowed. Seasonal considerations eliminated Africa, South America, and the West Indies. Tourism abolished Panamá, Costa Rica, and Guatemala. By the process of rejection, we were forced to recognize the previously discovered spots, thereby creating a trend of what was good for others, but not for us. The trend that was good for others was indeed the golden vein for the gamefish, but too many others were mining these piscatorial pleasures. It was natural to look for gaps in the golden trend. These breaks in the trend would hold undiscovered fins.
One specific gap became apparent. Between Nicaragua and Guatemala are El Salvador and Honduras. The billfish are found on either side of this gap, in both the Pacific and the Caribbean. A bonus is added in that tarpon and snook are found in the lagoons along the shores. Most importantly, however, we would be off the main path. We would be isolated from other sport fishermen, separated from affluent Western culture, speaking Spanish in a destination unto ourselves. At last our potion had brewed to perfection – our spot had found us.
We planned for our adventure to consume the month of May and extend into June. The children would miss the last month of school, but would continue their education on a higher level, earning a degree in world travel. We would journey as overlanders. Each traveler would wear a backpack and survive on a low budget. We would subsist on the local economy, eat the neighborhood food, sleep where we could. We would be shaped by the culture in which we moved. We would return to where we had departed only after we had become polished by events unforeseen and experiences unpredicted. We would return home wearing the prized patina of wisdom gained through adventure.
Our route would begin from our rancho on the Rim. We would drive to a large American city on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. From there we would fly to San Salvador. We would explore the coast of El Salvador. Then we would travel overland to Honduras, passing through the capital and continuing to the remote Miskito coast, traveling by whatever means available. From the jungle, we would venture to the tropical islands offshore. Afterwards we would return to the mainland and travel to the Maya Highlands to visit the old Indians. We would finally arrive in San Pedro Sula to find a flight back to the American city from which we had departed. From there we would drive back to the Rim, our circle complete, our backpacks worn and shiny, our spirits elevated, our wisdom nourished by adventure.
By the time our spot had found us, departure day loomed only a few days distant. From the barn we retrieved two treasures. A set of blue backpacks. Worn by two travelers from the past. The dust was wiped off. Rat-gnawed lashes were replaced. An old coin from Bhutan was discovered. The straps on one pack were adjusted to fit young shoulders and hips.
We began to create a list of necessary items to place into our blue backpacks, and we began to secure those particulars. By discussing the list, the true nature of the adventure began to emerge. We would be traveling light, we would be exposed to the unpredictable elements of weather, critters, and people, each of which carry their own storms, from each of which we needed protection. Against critters we needed a plastic cover for cheap hotel mattresses holding bedbugs. To guard against rain and dust we needed covers for our backpacks. These covers would serve also to protect our belongings from reaching hands. For more security against people we needed a padlock for cheap hotel doors, and secret pockets in which to hide money from police thieves. Preparing a backpack for adventure is a lesson in reality.
Most of our travels had occurred before the Internet existed. This time we made use of the new technology. By searching the Web, we found several Salvadorans and Hondurans who offered information. We cast five baits into the Net and waited. The next day Honduras1 called. We had a lively discussion. Some of his remarks were memorable. “You are going where few venture. The road you are seeing on the map does not actually exist. The closest you can arrive to where you want to go is far to the west. From Limón you may find a tuk-tuk to get you to Mosquitia. You will be in jungle. Thank God it is the dry season. Now there are no bugs.” We asked if there was anyone we could speak with whom had actually traveled where we hoped to go. “Yes. There is a Canadian. He is an expert on the area.” We asked how to find the Canadian, and Honduras1 gave us an address on the Web. After closing with Honduras1, we cast bait six into the Net.
A few days later we spoke with an Internet user named Skituf. He had traveled two months previous to the Bay Islands and he provided us with current information and personal opinions. He recommended that we try Isla Roatán, as Isla Útila is very primitive and Isla de Guanaja is a tourist fantasy island. He represented that accommodations are many and varied, and that beaches are good on the west end of Roatán. The island is lush with rolling hills. Excellent diving and fishing are available. Sand fleas and mosquitoes are seasonal. Skituf opined that Roatán is like Mexico before it was developed, and he encouraged us to travel there soon, for the island is being exploited rapidly.
Although we spoke with no other users of the Internet, from Honduras1 we learned of a book about La Mosquitia written by a Canadian traveler named Derek Parent. We attempted to speak to Parent, but he was traveling in western Canada. We did receive and read his book. The words and the images they conveyed were quite useful for the planning of our adventure. Most importantly, Parent confirmed that the roads shown on our maps do not exist. However, he described alternative means to arrive on the Miskito Coast. Boats and planes were available. The Canadian’s book provided detailed maps of the region, and these indicated Indian villages, foot trails and dugout canoe routes. Parent named places where lodging and food could be obtained. This authentic traveler, in essence, provided us with our first glimpse of what we might encounter in the jungles of the Miskito Coast.
Materials for the trip began to arrive at our rancho on the Rim. These were added to the carefully selected collection of assets stacked around our blue backpacks. Conspicuous by their absence were hats. Every journey creates its own personality, and hats are the expression of this spirit. Our hats would find us along the road.
The night before departure, four travelers stepped out of the house. Three wore backpacks and one carried a carpetbag. Two had small leather travel bags draped over a shoulder. One carried a white tube containing gamefish rods. Of eight hands, six were free. These few items were placed into our awaiting brown cruiser. The loading required only a brief moment. So far to go, so little to carry, so much to see.
The following morning our cruiser crept out of the driveway and slowly passed the orchard. We savored a last look. Peace and Tranquility breathed softly. Safety and Security begged us not to go. But we waved good-by to them. A ship is safe in harbor, but that’s not what ships are for. Then our cruiser leaped forward and we were running, and the wind blew through the windows and ahead danced the mirage of adventure.
We traveled down and out of the forested mountains and onto a red desert and across a windswept prairie to a green coastal plain and a metal city. Along the way we saw a burning car beside the highway, two people standing nearby sobbing and hugging each other; and we saw a lone motorcycle rider pass by and nod hello, and a hundred miles later we saw his wrecked bike tangled beside the road, the rider missing – all this serving to remind us of how savage can be the great road. In the metal city we bought a final few items and enjoyed spicy dinners with dear friends. Conversation had at first been lively, but as the hours to departure decreased, the simmering of suspense appeared. We grew quieter and eventually became somber.
From our high-rise perch above the field of treetops, we stared at the tall towers protruding through the verdant canopy. The distant building lights blinked inside their glass walls. Dusk softened the moment. Then a brilliant honey melon began to grow between the towers. As the moon rose, our voices stilled and our spirits settled and we stared. It was the night of the Planting Moon. Soon we would begin to grow. A few hours later our airship roared off the land and we were thrust against our seats and into the awaiting adventure. We whispered good-by to whom we had been.
Ace of Hearts
Christopher Columbus sailed along the eastern coast of Central America during his fourth and final voyage in 1502. He stopped at the Bay Islands and Trujillo Bay, claiming land in the name of the Spanish crown. Hernando Cortés followed Columbus to the New World and conquered Mexico. Cortés sent one of his trusted officers, Pedro de Alvarado, supported by 400 soldiers, south into what is now Guatemala. There the conquistador defeated the Indian armies in 1524 and founded the Kingdom of Guatemala. Quickly Alvarado established ports at Trujillo and Puerto Caballos. Then his Spanish invaders penetrated the land of Central America and constructed settlements. By 1600, more than a hundred villages existed for the purpose of demanding religious conversion of the Indians and extracting economic tribute from them. However, most of the Indians had died by then, victims of the syphilis and smallpox brought by the infested Spaniards.
Throughout the 1600s and 1700s, the Spanish exploited their Central American colony for gold and silver, indigo, spices and dyewood. English, French and Dutch pirates would await Spanish ships departing Central America and attack them to steal their cargoes of colonial produce.
In 1810, Central Americans, beginning in what is now El Salvador, rose against the Spanish in a series of rebellions. The United Provinces of Central America was formed as a union to fight the Spaniards. This alliance was composed of all the current countries of Central America except for Panamá, which was then a part of Colombia. By 1821, the Spanish had been entirely chased out of Central America. The union of countries held until 1841, then it dissolved, providing each Central American country with independence. Several unsuccessful attempts to reunite the union occurred.
El Salvador was ruled by conservative governments from its independence until 1992. These governments were dominated by a few wealthy families called the Catorce Grande, the Big Fourteen. Extremist parties were outlawed. In the late 1950s, social unrest began, resulting in political turmoil and a civil war beginning in the late 1970s between the conservative military and revolutionary guerrilla forces. The United States backed the conservatives and Russia supported the guerrillas. Death squads, assassinations, and anarchy ruled El Salvador from 1970 until 1992. Members of the clergy were targeted by the conservatives. The rich were targeted by the guerrillas. Only after twelve years of war was a peace accord reached.
The size of El Salvador is about equal to that of the State of Massachusetts. El Salvador is home to about six million people and Massachusetts to about the same number. El Salvador is the most densely populated country in the Americas, and Massachusetts is one of the most densely populated states in the United States. Each has about 740 people per square mile. By contrast, India has about 730 people per square mile, Mexico has 110, the United States has 70. In Massachusetts, about 85% of the people live in urban areas, whereas in El Salvador, urban and rural populations are about equal. In El Salvador, over 70% of babies born are illegitimate and 10% of all babies die at birth.
Coffee is the main cash crop of El Salvador. In the 1850s, the rich began to seize villages and convert them into coffee plantations. By 1879 a coffee boom was underway. This economic activity spawned prosperity and opened the way for a population increase. Beginning in 1944, the rich converted the forests and coastal plain to coffee plantations. This further increased prosperity and population, but used up all the open land in the country. Although in the 1960s El Salvador diversified its export base into sugar cane, cotton, and small manufactured goods, these products account for only a minor source of revenue. The contemporary culture, the current commercial situation, and the large population are all products of the coffee economy.
Today there is no empty land in El Salvador and there is a rapidly expanding population of peasants. Lots of poor people and nowhere to put them. The country has outgrown its capability to support its populace. As a result, political instability has been a trademark of El Salvador for the past forty years. People continue to leave the country seeking other opportunities. There is no savior in sight for the plight of El Salvador.
Our jet dropped from cruising altitude and began a long glide as it crossed the Guatemalan border and descended into El Salvador. Under us rose two parallel rows of volcanoes. A cultivated valley extended between the rows. The patchwork countryside was green and lush, with coffee plantations abounding everywhere. The rich terra roxa volcanic soil of El Salvador is ideal for coffee, but we could see no soil, for every bit of space was planted or populated. To the west lay the blue Pacific and we soon soared out over it. We imagined billfish. The youngest traveler asked about the dark spots on the water and he was told that they were the shadows of clouds. Then our plane curved back toward the coast and we dropped toward the ground, green fields rushing up to meet us, smoking tires announcing our touchdown onto the runway at the small and isolated international airport of El Salvador located at Comalapa.
Entering the country was easy and there was no delay. As there was no reason for us to go to the capital at San Salvador, outside we arranged for a car and driver to carry us westward along the coast to La Libertad, where we would look for a hotel. Soon we were cruising quietly over a bumpy highway through lush tropical vegetation. Iguanas ran across the road and animals of burden pulled carts. There were many colorful flowers and dozens of stands where mangos were sold.
After examining several hotels, we decided on the Hotel Rick on the beach at La Libertad. All hotels had been more expensive than we had anticipated, and none had been particularly worth the price. The Rick was the cheapest of the lot and had two beds, a fan and a primitive bathroom lacking a toilet seat and shower head. There were no screens on the windows, but we were told there are no mosquitoes yet, an explanation we dubiously received. The children asked if we had ever before stayed in such a place as this. We answered that this was a good hotel and we added that we hoped we might always have such comfort. Their expression of skepticism revealed their lack of experience.
After walking into the town center, we found a farmácia and bought malaria pills. The supply for the entire family cost $7. Comparatively, USA doctors had wanted to examine each of us and charge over $8 a pill for the medication, a cost approaching $400. We told the lady at the pharmacy this and she laughed, declaring that she had been to the United States. She joked that she had a big nosed cousin who lived in Narizona. When explaining about the pills, she offered that no one in La Libertad takes them, as everyone is immune. She insisted that mosquitoes were the first residents of El Salvador and lectured that the anopheles malaria mosquito is larger than others and has white wing tips. This happy lady was a good first conversation in El Salvador.
During the hot afternoon we nursed cold dark bottles of Cerveza Pilsner. The logo on the bottle is the ace of hearts. Beer is always served with little snacks called bocas, or mouths. While we sipped, we watched the local surf crowd catch six foot rollers breaking over the rocky point. The sea water was so hot that the surf spray steamed and cast a haze over the beach. We sat well above the seashore, as it was cooler the farther one moved from the water. The radio blared popular music, including the Latin American favorite sang in English, “Don’t Want No Short Dick Man.” We have never found a listener who knows what the words mean. The waitress serving us called us sarcos. She explained that it was friendly and means “ones with blue eyes.”
In the later afternoon, we walked over to the long steel wharf that extends offshore La Libertad. The wharf is the center of activity for the community. Fishermen worked on their long, narrow pointed-bow skiffs called pangas parked in numbered spots. Women sold fish of all sorts from metal wash tubs. Fish meat hung from drying lines. Sharks, eels, mackerel, jack crevalle called jurel, barrilete called atun, snapper, lobster, shrimp, and many small bottom fish were for sale. Most of the fish were small. The number of small bottom feeding fish indicated severe over-fishing practices. Foot traffic and pushers rolling pangas on the wharf created slow-going due to the crowd and limited space. There were no lights on the wharf.
As we walked back toward the hotel, a lady approached and asked if she could cook for us. We agreed and she became our chef during our stay in La Libertad. She served us beans, rice, fried plátano, fried potatoes, vegetable soup, sautéed vegetables, and tortillas. Everything was delicious and clean and well served in an upstairs dining room overlooking the ocean. We asked for chiles, but when she said that only jalapeños and poblano peppers called gordas were available in the market, we told her not to bother. Had we been limited to eating in restaurants, we would have found only a seafood diet available, unsuitable for vegetarians like us.
After dinner on our first night in town, we were approached by Roberto, who had heard we wanted to fish. He told us that he had a nice panga with a shade top and good seats. When questioned, he confessed that he had never caught a billfish, nor had he ever taken a Gringo fishing. We agreed on a Mexicanesque price and planned to depart at dawn the coming morning.
Back in our room, we spoke of how lucky our day had been. We had left the USA and arrived safely with all our baggage in El Salvador. We had found a car and driver and located a good hotel. A cook had found us. A panga and capitán had found us. The beer was cold and tasty. There were no mosquitoes. And best of all, we were on the road again.
At dawn we found Roberto awaiting us outside our room. His panga was on a trailer out in the street. We saw that it was about 26 feet long, powered by a 75 hp outboard and a 15 hp spare outboard. It was clean and well maintained and had four rod holders. The center console held a steering wheel and a compass. Under the dash was a radio. We were very surprised, as we had not expected so much. Roberto pulled the panga with his pickup. We climbed into the boat and he dragged us to the wharf. There we detached the trailer from the pickup and pushed the panga out to the end of the wharf. There we all climbed in. Special lines attached to the panga allowed a crane to lift the boat up and swing it out over the water and set it softly onto the sea. We were afloat.
Roberto had appointed his associate Armando to take us out. Armando was a wrinkled Salvadorian fisherman. He fired the outboard and soon we were running away from the wharf. The water was blue within minutes, but we ran about a half hour before beginning to troll. Armando had seen a floating sea turtle and claimed that we had arrived at proper water. The hunt began.
For two days we fished. We saw not a single sign of billfish. Actually, the sea was dead of birds and schooling fish. We fished slicks and color changes, but suffered no strikes. We saw lots of turtles and flying fish, but failed to raise any fins or tails. We caught dorado around a floating tree trunk, but the fighters were small and not the game we searched. We took tuna in singles, but we had hoped for billfish. We fished a beautiful wide rip, full of sargazo and mangroves and trees, dirty green water on one side, cobalt blue on the other, but all we took were large sanate, a toothy fish with a long snout and similar in appearance to an alligator gar.
The Salvadorian panga is much less seaworthy than its Mexican cousin. The narrowness required because of the wharf makes the panga roll and wallow. The panga had difficulty rising up on plane when given throttle. It was difficult to steer a true course regardless of speed.
Armando became a fisherman friend. He told us about the war and predicted that another one will come soon. He held up his shoes and declared that they cost fifteen colones before the war and now cost 300 and complained that his salary had not risen at all. Salvadorian colones he called payasos. We asked why and he replied that colones sounds like clowns in English and that is really what Salvadorian money is, something that makes you laugh, therefore a clown.
We trolled along the beach one morning and Armando pointed out all the rich houses. He explained that they are owned by the military chiefs. We could see armed soldiers standing around. He complained that there are almost no open beaches in El Salvador, that all have been seized by the elite for personal use, thereby removing from the public a scarce natural resource. Armando declared that no one dares speak openly about the abuse of power or corruption, as there are many disappearances in El Salvador. He insisted that almost no one is happy and that everyone is afraid that their neighbor is a spy for the Government.
While offshore, we would see huge, red, wasp-looking insects floating dead on the sea. We had also seen these in town. Armando called them zompopos de mayo. He told that these insects are hatches of larvae buried in the soil until the rains of May arrive. The larvae hatches at night and the red insects fly into the darkness and die the following morning. Armando called politicians zompopos, claiming that politicos live underground, come out only at night and fly away with the money, pretending to have died.
Armando learned that we travel in Mexico. He did not like Mexicans, calling them malcreados, bad borns, and insisting that they are even more corrupt than Salvadorian politicos. Throughout our trip, we would find this same theme repeated over and over. We met not a single Central American who said a nice thing about Mexicans.
After two lackluster days offshore, we decided that it was time to move on. We found a car and driver and he carried us over a filthy crowded highway to the capital of El Salvador.
Pipiles & Huanacos
As we entered San Salvador, we could see that the city was modern and crowded and extremely polluted. Central America has no oil resources, and gasoline is very expensive. Therefore, almost all forms of transport are powered by the less expensive diesel. Unfortunately, diesel fuel pollutes heavily and leaves a dark sticky film where it settles. After only a few minutes outside, we would find black residue under our fingernails and smudges on our hands. The children learned the value of soap and water for hand washing.
San Salvador was founded in 1525 by the Spanish. Three years later the location was moved twenty miles southwest. The area is prone to earthquakes and the city has been destroyed numerous times. As a result, few colonial buildings remain. The city looks modern, but is so dirty that it appears to be in decay.
As we toured the sprawling central market, we noted that most of the produce was avocados, mangos and tomatoes. Manufactured goods were low-end items from the USA. Almost everyone had the same things for sale. There were no chiles in the market. We then crossed the downtown area to the Mercado Cuartel, where handicrafts are sold. To our disappointment, we found that few Salvadorian crafts were exhibited. Most of the merchandise was from Guatemala.
Salvadorians call themselves pipiles or huanacos. They are very friendly and most are helpful. During our brief stay in the capital, we were continually warned to be careful of thieves and beware of assaults. Well-wishers volunteered to wait behind as we left restaurants, this to allow them to watch for people following us out for possible assault, thereby giving the well-wisher an opportunity to come to our aid. We were told that this is a courtesy extended to all Salvadorians. All the front doors to hotels were locked as a precaution against robbers entering. Armed guards were present in front of many stores.
We departed the capital in a clean modern bus bound for Tegucigalpa, Honduras. The ride carried us over the Pan American Highway, a narrow blacktop with almost no shoulder and filled with potholes. All the bridges had been blown up during the recent war, and temporary green metal military bridges had evolved into permanent bridges. The land beside the highway served as a dump, with litter in places several meters high and extending for miles. The ayudante helper on the bus would occasionally sweep the aisle and then open the door and kick the trash out onto the highway. As we cruised over the litter strewn road, volcanoes protruded out of the tropical foliage and fields of flowers. It was splendor in the trash.
Finally we arrived at the border and stepped off the bus to tend to our immigration papers. We were rushed by money changers and hustlers and pickpockets as we fought through the crowd to the office of the border officials. There the children received a second stamp in their passports. Back on the bus, we left El Salvador by crossing a metal bridge over a muddy trash filled river that is the border.
Like El Salvador, Honduras was a part of the Kingdom of Guatemala under Spanish rule. After the Spaniards were expelled, Honduras was a member of the United Provinces of Central America until 1841, when the Alliance crumbled. Honduras became independent, its government ruled by the military. From 1932 to 1958, only two generals held power. Despite the lengthy tenures of these two generals, Honduras has averaged one president per each year of its independence since 1841. Honduras has adopted thirteen constitutions since its independence. Beginning in 1980, the military allowed civilians to govern the country. This ended, however, when the military reclaimed power in 1989 by initiating election fraud so as to permit extending an invitation to the United States to establish armed bases along the Honduras-Nicaragua border.
Honduras is accurately thought of as a “Banana Republic.” Fruit companies of the United States began to control Honduras in the early 1900s, when the Honduras military became dominated by the Americans. The United Fruit Company and the Standard Fruit Company developed the north coast of Honduras for the purpose of exporting bananas to various parts of the world. Railroads, towns and ports were constructed. Black laborers from the West Indies and British Honduras were brought to work the plantations. Exportation was increased to include coffee, sugar cane and lumber. The Honduras military served as the enforcement agency for United States commercial and diplomatic interests. This strong military presence has prevented revolutions and civil wars in Honduras, but it has kept the country impoverished. Today foreign fruit companies no longer own the ports, railroads and plantations, but these foreign companies nevertheless control the resources by dominating the markets of Honduran plantation owners and their banks.
Honduras is the second largest country in Central America, but is the poorest. Per capita income is less than $700 per year. Almost two-thirds of the people are subsistence farmers. Unemployment approaches fifty percent. Honduras has about 6 million people and is about the size of Virginia, which also has a population of six million. About two-thirds of Hondurans live in rural areas, whereas in Virginia this same proportion lives in urban areas. Honduras has about 140 people per square mile. This is such a low population density for Central America that other Central Americans emigrate there regularly and illegally.
As we crossed into Honduras over the metal bridge entering from El Salvador, we could see a pink building ahead. From atop this border station waved the Honduran flag. It was three horizontal stripes of blue-white-blue containing five stars in the white. This design is to indicate the blue ocean on either side of land, with the stars representing the five members of the original Central American Alliance that Honduras hopes to re-establish in the future. A weathered billboard welcomed us to Honduras. Again we stepped off the bus, and again we were rushed by money changers and fast hands. The border officials put a third stamp into the passports of the children.
By early afternoon we topped a pine covered pass and looked below to a rugged valley. Red tile roofs parked on the slopes, on the edge of the arroyos, and on the limited flat land. We had arrived at the capital. Tegucigalpa, founded in 1524, has been the capital of Honduras since 1880. Prior to that date, the capital was at Comayagua, but was moved because the people there would not tolerate the Governor’s mistress. Unlike San Salvador, the city of Tegucigalpa has not suffered from natural disasters, so it has retained its colonial appearance. As we entered the city, we could see narrow cobblestone streets off the main boulevard.
The instant we stepped off the bus, taxi drivers rushed to fight over the fare to carry us. Of the men vying for our money, Omar finally won and carried us on a search for a good hotel. The longhaired Gringa had insisted that luxury was a toilet seat and we vowed to accommodate her. As we searched, we learned that Omar had lived in the USA for three years, working with Native Americans in Holbrook, Arizona. Although he had been a good worker and had never suffered a problem with the Gringo Federales, his heart had remained with his wife and children in Honduras, and after three years of earning, he returned to Honduras, and with the Gringo booty, he had bought his cab and means of supporting his family. He was proud of himself and exuded confidence.
Omar found us a good hotel and after checking in we walked to the downtown area. There we located a Chinese restaurante called Lucky and enjoyed our first meal in 24 hours. We experienced for the first time the five flavors of Honduran brew, declaring that two were preferred – Port Royal and Salvavida, the first in green bottles, the latter in brown.
Hondurans refer to themselves as Catrachos. No one could tell us the derivation of this name. It is used everywhere, from names of stores like Ferretería Catracho, to types of food, such as nachos Catrachos. There are few buses in Tegucigalpa proper, although many skirt the edge of the city. Tegucigalpa herself is too colonial for buses. Narrow cobblestone streets inhibit buses. As a result, there is less pollution from the diesel than in San Salvador. The few existing buses are old yellow USA school buses. Most still have the names of the Gringo schools painted on the sides. We saw buses bound for Valley Elementary School and East St. Louis High School, all filled with somber Catrachos going to work.
The market in Tegucigalpa is sprawling and huge like in San Salvador, but is more rustic in nature, so less depressing. Wooden stalls abound in Teguci, whereas in San Salvador such stalls were conspicuously absent. Regardless, green raw sewage spreads through each market area. As we mashed between the stalls, we found a Señora selling unusual hot chiles and we asked the name of the fruit. She replied they had no name other than chiles. We asked the Señora her name, and after she told us, we declared to her that we would plant the seeds of her chiles in Los Estados and we would call them Chiles Norma. We were in the market on Mother’s Day, and most of the women wore a red rose pinned to their blouse.
The Christian invasion has succeeded in Honduras. Many Catrachos carried Bibles as they shuffled through the crowds along the streets. There are many Christian book stores. Billboards warning of the return of Christ are abundant. We walked past several assembly houses where the flock had been brought by van and where singing was joyous. Tegucigalpa supports few bars and most of the people are non-smokers.
In preparation for our trip into the jungle, we searched for mosquito nets and learned that Catrachos make their own from bridal veils. We shopped a fabric store downtown and scored pink, yellow, blue and green veils from which to construct our nets. We hoped that our colorful presentation would not attract mosquitoes.
In the home of an elderly Señora who does laundry for travelers, we met a young man from Kentucky. Foregoing travelers English, we spoke American. He had been on the road two years and had recently traveled in Nicaragua. There he had found hostility for the first time. Bands of young boys had chased him and tried to stone him. Adults had spit on him. Wisely, he claimed it had all made him a better man, as he had also met politically conscious Nicaraguans who expressed to the young American their ideas about the Gringo government and economic imperialism. His closed eyes had begun to open as he radicalized politically.
Later, the children remarked that the traveler had looked happy and sad and worried, and the concerned children wanted to know where he would go next. ”He’s on the road,” the longhaired Gringa answered. “He’s going everywhere, and he feels everything. That’s what he came for.” The children stared at her. She continued. “He’s a freeborn man. His home is on his back. He knows every inch of highway, and every back road, and every mile of railroad track. He’s a traveler.” And her eyes clouded over and she looked away. The children continued to stare, and there was a long pause and finally a slight nod and a sigh.
The following morning, old colonial Tegucigalpa reflected in the rear-view mirror of the padded luxury bus. We were rolling north, down from the highlands onto the Caribbean coast, moving toward the destination named in the jingle we had crooned for the past several months. All of us hummed softly. All of us smiled. A promise was being fulfilled.
“Vamos a La Ceiba…”
Clouds draped over the mountains as the luxury bus rolled along the well-maintained modern highway between Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula. Dollars paid Honduras by the Reagan administration were responsible for the good highway. During the 1980s, President Reagan had used Honduras as a base for launching attacks against the democratically elected government of Nicaragua because Reagan did not approve of whom was elected. Honduran Generals received some money, and the Honduras treasury received some, provided the money for Honduras was used for highways, this in case the Gringo army had to be mobilized. Puddles of red muddy water lay beside the pavement, reminding us of how dirty had been the blood money.
The luxury bus sported a bar and a movie screen, and food and drinks were served by a stewardess. We cruised through low hills where pineapples were planted in rows parallel to the hillside contours. Mango trees and red flowered acacia trees and tall corn adorned the landscape. Green was the dominant color, and even the fence posts sprouted branches. We passed beside a huge fenced USA military base. Gringo soldiers jogged in the morning coolness. The USA flag was conspicuously absent.
Near the outskirts of San Pedro Sula we passed through a modern industrial park where Gringo businesses had set up factories to utilize inexpensive Honduran labor. The park was clean and white and appeared out of place when compared to all the other parts of Honduras through which we had cruised. Just beyond the park, the trash and traffic began to increase as we entered San Pedro Sula.
Near downtown we eased through a guarded gate which was then quickly closed behind us. We stepped out into the private parking lot of the luxury bus company and retrieved our backpacks from the luggage compartment. When we asked the attendant directions for walking to the buses to La Ceiba, he paused and stared at us in disbelief. Then he warned us that we should not leave by the front entrance, as the hustlers would descend upon us. He led us to the back entrance. There he pointed, barked a few directions and gave us the thumbs up sign. Then we stepped out of the private lot into the swarming streets of San Pedro Sewage. At that moment, comfort died.
Suddenly we were on the road for real. As our four hats twisted through the crowded market, people paused to stare at us. After moving through swarming people for about ten blocks, we saw the bus lot on a side street. Before we could arrive there, we were spotted and rushed by hustlers and mobbed by snatching hands. But we avoided the throng and reached the wooden stalls to stand with our backs protected. The old rodsman secured four tickets and then we twisted through the masses to the bus that was rapidly filling. The longhaired Gringa and the youngest traveler fought their way aboard and seized four seats. The old fisherman and the oldest son loaded the packs onto the bus rack and then stood guard to make certain that the packs stayed loaded until the bus departed. Soon every seat was taken, and every space in the aisle supported a squatter. It was hot and the dead air fetid. At last the driver pushed his way inside and turned the key, and the motor roared as it belched black diesel exhaust.
Jerking to a start, the old blue bus bounced over the potholes, splashing red mud onto the wooden stalls lining the lot, before turning onto the crowded street and creeping through the swarming people, finally reaching a wide boulevard, slowly gaining speed, the worn springs of the suspension causing it to roll gently side to side, and the driver shifted into third, and the bus began to calm, and then to sway, and a soft samba began, and at last we truly could sing “Vamos a La Ceiba.”
Outside San Pedro Sula, the narrow blacktop led through banana plantations and palm forests as it climbed into green mountains. As the wind rushed into the bus through the open windows, the sweat on brows evaporated and the riders grew quiet as they cooled. The squatter beside the old fisherman asked if the Gringo spoke Spanish and soon they were talking. Pedro was from La Mosquitia and was the first source of any local information about the jungle that was one of our destinations. The talk lasted several hours and the Gringo added many notes to his journal.
During a pause, Pedro the squatter touched the Gringo and motioned out the window. A high ridge of rugged black volcanic peaks served as a backdrop for a surreal scene. In an open field towered several trees so huge that they seemed painted. The trunks were so thick that it would have taken a dozen men to form a ring around them. The trunks spired up over thirty meters before the first branches spread out. The branches were as big around as a car. The greenery in the tree top was as large as a barn. Never had we seen such trees. Pedro smiled and said that we were arriving, that the giant ones were welcoming us to their home, to the place named after the great trees, to La Ceiba, La Novia de Honduras.
The old blue bus bounced into the lot and the remaining passengers unloaded. There were no hustlers and we stood unmolested. After a while a man asked us if wanted a ride to a hotel. We asked if he knew of one. He looked down at our backpacks and then offered that he knew of a place on the beach where ones like us go. We asked him to take us there. After skirting the downtown area by driving through quiet neighborhoods, we entered a wide street and came alongside the Caribbean. Almost out of town, we pulled up to the Rotterdam Beach Hotel, a wonderfully authentic traveler’s hotel. We selected the upstairs corner room beside the traveler from Holland, the one over the room occupied by the French. Otherwise the hotel was empty.
Soon we had changed into beach wear and had strolled onto the white sand. While the children swam in the Caribbean and washed the road off their bodies, the longhaired Gringa and the old fisherman sipped cold beer from sweating green bottles while seated in a shaded beachside restaurant called the 2001. We had arrived, and happiness owned the moment. A promise had been fulfilled. We smiled at each other and softly whispered our jingle. Vamos a La Ceiba had become true.
The 2001 became our hangout. Miguel, the young Caribe who lived on the premises with his aunt the cook, was quickly befriended by the two youthful Gringo travelers, and street-smart Miguel soon taught the rural boys billiards and card tricks and how to flip bottle caps. We fattened on beans and potatoes cooked by Tía, and we relaxed with the aid of cold green bottles of Port Royal. During the evenings we watched lovers embrace on the beach and fishermen standing as silhouettes on a distant wharf, and we listened to the soft swish of surf against the shore and stared at the twinkling lights of La Ceiba. During the day, we laughed at children hopping over a sidewalk made of bright multicolored slabs and we clapped as Miguel swayed rhythmically to Caribbean salsa music while exclaiming that “Papa got the beat.”
La Ceiba was a mix of cultures. Ladinos, Black Caribes, Indians and Gringos blended to create the perfect tonic. Spanish was the language, but so was crazy English. Papa busca go car? Quiere cool water Father? We were thought to be Spanish because our Spanish was better than that of the locals. When we confessed to being Gringos, there was often disbelief. Once we were told that we could not be Gringos, that surely we were Salvadorians from a German background and that we were simply trying to fool people by speaking like Mexicans.
As we strolled the streets of the colorful town, we often asked about someone to sew our bridal veil into mosquiteros. The more we inquired, the more we were told that Ceibenos buy their mosquito nets already fabricated. So we searched until we found some for sale and we inspected the nets to see how they were made. Two styles were common, round and rectangular. We determined that we could construct a hybrid by using our bridal veil and suspending it by ropes attached to an embroidery ring holding the veil. This design could be accomplished by cutting a piece from the veil and sewing it to a different spot on the same veil. One afternoon our hotel room became filled with pastel colors as the longhaired Gringa constructed our mosquito nets.
Approached the time to go again. La Ceiba had been a destination that was only a sojourn. Even though our jingle had focused on La Ceiba, the town was only the beginning of a greater adventure.
One evening we prepared to move on. As we packed, the notice on the wall seemed to wink at us and we chuckled. On crisp white paper was written in large letters: “The visit of prostitutes in the room is prohibited for problems in the past, you otherwise will pay a overcharge of L.50.00. It doesn’t make us sponsors for lost objects in the room if they have had visits.” When asked, the children sternly declared that they had entertained no prostitutes in the room during the time when their parents had been absent. The laughter was soothing and welcome, for anticipation sparked. Finally we turned out the lights and silence filled the room, allowing for the entry of expectation.
The coming morning we would begin our journey into the unknown. Our backpacks leaned against the wall, resting. The children lay quietly on their beds, dreaming. Darkness harbored tranquility, that soft pause before arrives the storm of change. For tomorrow would bring one of those moments which money cannot buy and for which time allows few. We would leave the known and travel to where the trucks and buses stop. We would step out and stand at a special place. Few reach the spot, even fewer go on. We would be at the end of the road. And since life is a circle, also we would be at the beginning of the unknown. In the bed the youngest child slept curled in the womb position. Tomorrow he and the others of us would be reborn.
The longhaired Gringa and the old rodsman slipped out of the room and strolled to the 2001. They sat silently for a while, sipping from cold bottles of Port Royal. They were alone except for Miguel, sitting behind the bar. Soft samba music was offered by Stereo 91, Radio La Ceiba.
With a cool breeze drifting off the Caribbean, she reached over to touch him gently, and she smiled softly, and whispered a secret into his ear. And he turned to her and stood and opened his arms and they came together, and they began to samba, and as they floated over the dance floor, they hummed a familiar jingle into each other’s ear. “Vamos a La Ceiba, vamos a bailar.” Indeed they had gone to La Ceiba, and now they were dancing.
After Spain had conquered Central America, sea transport began in two directions. Colonial produce was shipped eastward to the mother country and supplies were shipped westward to the colonies. Spain, however, was unable to furnish sufficient merchandise for Central America. The French and English began to smuggle goods into Central America to sell to the colonists, who were forbidden by Spanish law to buy any merchandise not sent by Spain. The French and British also took advantage of the weaker Spanish navy to steal shiploads of colonial produce bound for Spain and to carry it instead to England or France. Each of these terrorist activities, smuggling and piracy, was state-supported by the French and British governments.
The age of Caribbean piracy lasted over two hundred years, covering the period between 1570 and 1800. During this time, famous pirates such as Sir Henry Morgan, Bloody Brewer and Edward Teach, known as Blackbeard, ruled the region. La Mosquitia provided the cover for hiding these pirates. The large lagoons, hidden islands, and twisting waterways prevented authorities from pursuing pirates into La Mosquitia. Furthermore, the pirates provided muskets to the local Indians for use against the authorities. The Indians pronounced the word musket as muskitia, thereby rendering the basis for the Spanish spelling of that pronunciation, mosquitia, and providing the name for the region, La Mosquitia.
Four distinct Indian cultures have lived in La Mosquitia, some since before recorded history. Both the pirates and the authorities used these Indians as pawns against the opposing side. The pirates would supply the Indians muskets and rum to win their allegiance. The authorities would bestow titles and land rights upon the Indians, such as naming La Mosquitia the Kingdom of the Miskitos and designating an Indian to be King.
The Spanish brought the first Franciscan missionaries to La Mosquitia, but the Indians drove them away. No more missionaries arrived until the late 1800s when the Protestant Moravians successfully converted most of the Indians to Christianity.
Despite Spanish claims on La Mosquitia, the British built prosperous towns there. Bluefields and Black River were the largest. From these centers, the British shipped bananas, mahogany and pitch to England. The British built Fort Inmaculada near the Nicaraguan river of San Juan. This garrison was designed to support British intentions to transport goods from the Atlantic Ocean up the Río San Juan into and across Lake Nicaragua, where they could then be carried by land a short distance to the Pacific Ocean. The route was the precursor to the Panama Canal.
By 1780, the British controlled all the coastline of La Mosquitia. In that year, however, the Spanish enforced their claim to the area with war. They were victorious and captured Fort Inmaculada and the several British towns. However, the British fought back and regained their previous possessions. A treaty was then signed between Britain and Spain, allowing unmolested British logging rights in Belize. Although the Spanish retained La Mosquitia, they abandoned the area by 1800, a portent to the coming loss by Spain of all her colonies in Central America within a few years.
When the Spaniards left Central America, the English returned. In La Mosquitia, the British crowned a new King of the Miskitos and began to move English settlers into the region. England renewed its attempts to use the Río San Juan and Lake Nicaragua as a canal. However, Nicaragua resisted this effort and asked the United States to intervene. Throughout the 1840s, Britain and the United States argued over the matter. To avoid a confrontation, a treaty was signed in 1850 and amended in 1856. This treaty ended British activities in La Mosquitia and gave the Bay Islands to Honduras. Also, it brought the Americans to La Mosquitia.
American banana companies moved into the Nicaraguan growing area when the British left. By the late 1800s, the fruit companies had discovered that the north coast of Honduras was a better site for banana plantations and by 1931 most had moved there. For the first time since the arrival of the Spanish, La Mosquitia lapsed into a tropical slumber.
During the early 1980s, La Mosquitia was suddenly awakened by a class war in Nicaragua. The overthrow of the USA-sponsored dictator Somoza initiated warfare that caused refugees from Nicaragua to flee into La Mosquitia. The United States established military camps in La Mosquitia to train soldiers to cross into Nicaragua to engage in the fight. Once the war was over in 1988, most of the refugees returned to Nicaragua, but some stayed. The military camps were dismantled, but mine fields along the Río Coco were not removed. La Mosquitia returned to its slumber.
Presently there are four Indian cultures living in La Mosquitia. The Garifuna live in extreme western Mosquitia. Their eastern-most village is Plapaya and their most populated town is Limón. These Indians are believed to be relative newcomers to La Mosquitia. They are said to be descendants of shipwrecked slaves that intermarried with Caribe Indians. The Garifuna language is a mixture of French, Caribe and the African dialect Yoruba. These Indians arrived in La Mosquitia after being deported from the Caribbean island of St. Vincent to Roatán, from where they traveled to the mainland of Honduras. The Garifuna practice rituals as well as Moravian Christianity.
The Miskito Indians are the best known of La Mosquitia. They are indigenous to the region, although they are a mixture of three other cultures. The Miskito began to marry into the colonial cultures, especially the British, after Europeans arrived. The British rewarded them for their alliance by designating their land as the Kingdom of the Miskitos and crowning a Miskito Indian named Brooklyn as the King. The Miskito dialect contains many English words. Their religion centers around a Chief Medicine Man called an okuli, but it also incorporates the Moravian faith. The Miskito have been used by the British to fight the Spanish and the Americans to fight the Nicaraguans. War captives of the Miskito Indians were barbecued and eaten. At times the Miskito have been slaves to American seafood and fruit interests.
The Paya and Sumu Indians have small populations and live deep in the jungle. The Paya were pushed there by Miskito Indians bearing muskets given them by the British. Only a few dozen Paya survive today as thoroughbreds. The Sumu culture was affected greatly by the refugees fleeing from Nicaragua, as these foreigners competed for scarce food and land in the jungle. A few hundred full-blooded Sumu exist. Both of these groups have been influenced by the Moravian religion.
We sat inside the sweltering bus at La Ceiba, awaiting departure. Vendors pushed through the crowded aisles. The goods they sold were all packaged, nothing homemade, and contrary this was to the Third World. Also pressing through the aisle were children leading blind elders bearing outstretched arms with palms up in the begging position. A man with no hands wandered in, drunk and dirty, begging anything. A creme vendor issued a good speech, but sold no jars.
The bus was full by Gringo measure when we left the station. However, we stopped to pick up additional passengers as we moved toward the highway, and squatters began to fill the aisles. Outside La Ceiba we passed a sign reading Tocoa 108 Km. An hour later we arrived at a broken bus and we stopped to take advantage of the unclaimed passengers standing beside the road, stuffing them into our jammed old bus bound for Tocoa. As we lumbered along, the police saw us severely overfilled and stopped us to extract a bribe from the driver. The delay caused the passengers to shout at the driver, encouraging him to pay 50 lempira so that we could move on through the heat. Another hour later the weight in the bus blew the sides out of one of the tires. Our jack did not work, so the driver flagged down a passing bus and borrowed one. Just after the tire had been changed, it began to rain.
As we slushed over the wet highway, through the closed and foggy windows we could see huge banana plantations owned by Gringo fruit companies. The bananas hanging from the trees were covered by plastic bags. A passenger explained that this was to protect the bananas from fruit bats. A second passenger added that fruit bats which cannot find fruit turn to sucking blood from humans. A third passenger told that since the Gringos had arrived and begun to cover the bananas, fruit bat attacks on sleeping children have become commonplace. The silence which followed these accusations made it clear who was to blame for the recent arrival of vampire bats into the local villages.
It was late in the afternoon when we swam into Tocoa. The rain was torrential and the town was flooded. The old fisherman and the oldest son were soaked by the time they had retrieved the packs from the bus. A car was found to carry us in search of a room. In the gray light of early evening we found refuge in a partially abandoned hotel filled with cockroaches. We changed into dry clothes and crossed the immersed street to a tiny restaurant and ordered beans, rice and beer. As we sat quietly staring out into the falling rain, we realized that it had taken all day to travel just 70 miles.
By dawn the rain had ceased and we walked through the still sleeping town of Tocoa to a vacant lot flooded with red muddy water and reeking of spoiled garbage. There we found a wooden stall with a bench in front on which sat three black women and a black girl. Parked in front of the stall waited a beaten, battered, rusty, red pickup, missing its rear fenders, wearing high wheels, and bearing on the door a yellow globe with the black number 44 painted inside the circle. “A Sangrelaya?” we asked. “Si, Papa,” the women nodded. We propped our packs against the wooden stall and sat down on the bench. As the morning warmed, flies began to buzz and steam rose off the moldy sewage.
Three Ladino men arrived as additional passengers. Then appeared a short, stocky, smiling, confident man wearing a pistol stuck in his belt. He was Don Guillermo, the driver. Soon we had the packs strapped on top of the cab and the passengers climbed aboard. The Gringa and the youngest traveler sat in the cab with Don Guillermo. In the truck bed on makeshift benches sat the others of us. We pulled out of the stinking lot and splashed through the deep puddles. At last we were on our way.
Ahead loomed the unknown. We were rolling toward the great tropical forest marked Unexplored, the place adventurers call La Mosquitia.
The pavement ended a half hour out of Tocoa at a gasoline station. Don Guillermo filled the red truck as we slurped on watermelon slices bought from young girls. Then we bumped onto a ribbon of potholes containing muddy red water. Such was the rough road, and we bounced slowly through hot thick air, the mountains on our flanks green with vines, and carrying the shrill of insects. After a while, we stopped at an isolated comedor for a middle morning meal.
The road became impassable after leaving the comedor and Don Guillermo suddenly turned sharply and took off on a narrow muddy trail leading through the trees. We rear passengers took care to avoid hanging vines and poking tree branches. We forded several rivers before returning to the main road. Shortly thereafter we entered the village of Jutiapa, composed of adobe huts with tall pointed thatched roofs and populated by naked children and black people sitting in the shade. We stopped in front of a house and two of the Ladino men climbed out as a happy, lanky, Caribe man named Lucky climbed in. Lucky boasted that this was the end of the road for everyone other than Don Guillermo.
Beyond Jutiapa the road vanished. A track resembling a poor animal trail was all that remained. We bounced onto it and continued our trek toward the northeast. Slowly we began to drop out of the vine infested mountains, descending to a low ridge which allowed us to look out over a vast green plain to the distant Caribbean. We bumped along the ridge to skirt the last of the mountains. The trail was of slippery red mud hiding tangles of tree roots. In some spots along the winding trail, there were ruts over a meter deep. For the first time, Don Guillermo put Red 44 into 4-wheel drive. When we would slip and stall, alert Lucky would leap off the truck and drag branches onto the trail to provide sufficient traction. Slowly, but inexorably, we slid along the ridge, finally dropping down into dense brush. We plowed through the maze of tangles, barked at by sneering birds.
Suddenly we shot out of the brush into a clear spot and bounced onto the beach. Lucky beamed and waved his arms and the black women clapped and shouted approval to Don Guillermo. The smooth sand was relief and comfort to the riders. We rolled easily, tall palms swaying in the breeze, shorebirds skimming over wave tops as they escorted us along the beach.
Without warning Don Guillermo veered sharply away from the pleasant shoreline and entered a green tunnel into the dense vegetation. Then abruptly we came to a stop facing a long narrow lagoon filled with stagnant black water. After only a momentary pause, Don Guillermo eased Red 44 into the lagoon. We could hear the sticky mud sucking around the wheels. Water rose to the bottoms of the headlights and the exhaust began to gurgle and then complain with a hollow bubbling cough. Red 44 waded through the lagoon for about a thousand meters before splashing out and heading through the trees back to the beach.
Ahead over the white sand we could see a thatched hut village clustered under tall coconut palms. We pulled into the settlement of Punta Piedra and the single remaining Ladino man climbed out. Don Guillermo joked with a group of black Garifuna Indians and sucked on a straw inserted into a coconut. Then he stepped up into the cab and we bounced back to the beach and continued eastward over the smooth sand.
The beach narrowed and steepened beyond Punta Piedra and Don Guillermo altered his driving technique. He would pause while swells would roll surf onto the beach, and when the water retreated, he would run forward until another swell pushed in white foaming surf. In this manner, Red 44 ran over hard packed sand between incoming swells.
We passed through five more Garifuna villages. From thatched roof huts the people would stare at the unexpected sight of Gringos in the red truck. Lucky and all the other passengers had disembarked after the third village, leaving only Gringos in Red 44. It was the first time Don Guillermo ever hauled Gringo children.
Finally we bumped into Sangrelaya. Don Guillermo stopped in front of a thatched hut and turned off the motor for the first time since departing Tocoa eight hours earlier. We had come to that magic spot. We had reached the end of the road.
Don Guillermo knew that we planned to journey on to Palacios. Normally there were two ways to travel there, walk through the jungle or go by river and sea. The Garifuna in Sangrelaya apprised us that the jungle was flooded and that a walk would be extremely difficult and dangerous due to the crocodiles. Don Guillermo offered to search for a man with a boat to carry us on. We settled around a hut to wait, where we were served rich coconut milk by the lady of the house.
As we rested and waited, we recollected about Don Guillermo. He was graceful and cool, a man in charge, accepting of his responsibilities and therefore caring for his passengers. He knew everyone and everyone loved him. He always smiled and he never passed anyone without a friendly wave and a shout. He had blazed the trail from Jutiapa to Sangrelaya six years previous and, until a few months before we arrived, he was the only one who had ever driven it. He was a true pathfinder. Two years previous, he had entered a river in Red 44 and had been swept away by unexpectedly fierce currents. Red 44 had drowned and been pulled by oxen from the river. Don Guillermo had been able to repair all the running parts of the little truck, but nothing electrical functioned. Red 44 had been reborn, but he was night blind and gaugeless.
In less than an hour, Don Guillermo returned with two smiling Garifuna Indians. They had a dugout powered by an outboard motor and were willing to carry us to Palacios. But we had to leave immediately or suffer a delay of several days. So we said good-by to Don Guillermo and shouldered our packs and walked to the edge of a dark lagoon behind the village of Sangrelaya. There the packs and passengers loaded into a long narrow mahogany dugout painted white and powered by a 15 hp motor. Soon we were slowly twisting our way through a channel of black water covered with purple water hyacinth and bordered by tall trees with thick broad sucking roots.
The channel widened into a small lake and we crossed to see white surf breaking onto a sand bar separating the lagoon from the Caribbean. We found the mouth of the lagoon and pushed through it toward the surf. The Garifuna Indians proved to be novice sailors. Rather than turning the bow into the swell, the Garifuna ran parallel to the beach and absorbed a beam sea, causing the dugout to rock dangerously and almost tip over. Adjusting abruptly, the Garifuna turned the bow directly into a swell as it broke into surf, flooding the dugout and threatening to swamp us. Quickly arrived a second swell to break into the dugout. Why we did not swamp will forever remain a mystery, but we did not, and the dugout broke free of the surf and sputtered into the open sea. Passengers and backpacks were totally soaked, but we ignored the wetness, instead thankful to have survived the incident.
The dugout turned eastward and ran parallel to the beach about 300 meters offshore. Behind the breaking surf and the steaming sea spray, we could see tall palms waving to us. The dugout rolled dangerously and we cautioned the Garifuna to move further offshore in order to avoid the growing swells. Far ahead in the distance, barely visible, we could see a point of land called Cabo Camarón. The Garifuna told us that we had to round the cape before we arrived at Palacios. While judging the distance and estimating the travel time, we noticed the black threatening sky to the south. So began the longest two hours of our adventure.
The wicked black thunderheads rolled toward us as they boiled off the coastal mountains. Quietly we watched the storm approach. At times we considered moving closer to shore, but the swells were too high for the low dugout. The sky turned gray as rain drowned the sunlight. “Fader gon see wet,” laughed the Garifuna in the bow. He was right, the father would soon be wet.
In the fierce storm we rounded Cabo Camarón. Darkness was fast approaching and we could barely see the palm trees on the beach. Suddenly the green sea changed into a brown stain carrying trees and floating pads of hyacinths. The Garifuna turned the dugout toward the beach, moving closer to shore to search for the river mouth hidden in the gray dusk. The Indian on the bow finally spied the boca and the helmsman ran at it. We glanced astern to see that no swells were chasing us and then focused ahead on the line of breaking white rollers. Miraculously we avoided the surf in the shore break and the Garifuna steered the long dugout into a wide calm river. Relieved, we all broke into smiles and laughter, even though the rain continued to pelt us.
In the dying day we turned upriver. The Río Sico ran full, and rust colored water sprayed over the bow. The jungle closed around us, only the river permitting us passage through. The little outboard hummed and the dugout ceased to roll and thankfully the rain quit. We rounded a wide bend and just ahead in the trees, at the edge of the river, we could see twinkling lights. Moments later, soaking wet and in the darkness, we arrived at Palacios, greeted by clouds of dancing mosquitoes.
From a wooden building near the riverside, a dark figure emerged. He was Don Felix, the innkeeper of the only rooms in Palacios. But his three rooms were taken. He offered us the floor in a small hotel he was building. We were thankful for the shelter and quickly accepted. We paid our two Garifuna guides and shouldered our packs for the walk through tall grass to the dark building. By candlelight we changed into dry clothes and returned to the house of Don Felix. There we enjoyed rice, beans and fried plátano, spiced by chile cabro, actually yellow habaneros. These delights were the first chile picosa of the entire trip. Warm, dry, and full, we returned to our floor and prepared to pass the night.
By soft candlelight we watched long silver cockroaches scurry across the floor. Mosquitoes swarmed around our heads, trying to invade through the repellent we had applied. We blocked off the window holes with our mosquito nets and burned a mosquito coil, and this ridded the room of the savage bloodsuckers. Using sleeping bags as mattresses, we covered ourselves with sheets and blew out the candle. Night flooded the room. Tranquility arrived. Another promise had been fulfilled. We were in Mosquitia.
The soft sound of tuk-tuk on the river awakened us to a bright dawn. A cool breeze was welcomed, even though we knew it would be brief. We arose and began to move around, hanging wet clothes to dry, chasing cockroaches from backpacks. Don Felix appeared and invited us to breakfast. We munched beans, rice and plátano while pigs scavenged outside the kitchen and chickens pecked rice off the floor. We asked about the fishing. We were told that the river was flooded and there would be none. We remarked that we would try anyway. So Don Felix sent word to a local fisherman that some Gringos wanted to waste money.
Capitán Gil arrived momentarily. He was a tiny, black, smiling man piloting a 25’ green mahogany cayuco. The dugout had been modified by adding slabs along the sides to make it taller. We would find that it rolled mercilessly. Seats were planks of wood wedged into the boat sides. An old 10 hp outboard powered the long canoe.
The tiny capitán warned that the fishing would be a waste of time. He confessed that the river is usually perfect at this time of the year, but that the rains had come two months early. He boasted that the right conditions bring huge tarpon and snook. He also claimed that in the river live monster fish called cubera snapper. These fish reach 100 kilos in weight and have jaguar teeth, of which he showed us several, some being as large as a thumb. Capitán Gil claimed that the best fishing is at Palacios, better than that of either Ibans, Brus or Sangrelaya. Despite the warnings of dismal results, we insisted on going fishing.
Just like the locals had predicted, we caught nothing. We watched giant tarpon roll in the river, but ignore our offerings. We trolled and cast and drifted and nothing hit us. We fished in the surf at the mouth of the river with the same results. The water was too dirty. As we trolled along the bank of a deep channel in the river, Capitán Gil insisted that below us were monster cubera and tarpon up to seven feet in length. He doubted that we could land them even if they hit, as the river is full of tree stumps used by the big fish as line cutting devices. Despite the poor conditions, we saw enough to know that the fish are at Palacios, and, given a clean river, sportfishing would be unsurpassed.
The village of Palacios was founded under the name Black River. During the middle 1700s, more than 3000 people lived there. The name was changed to Palacios when an English aristocrat founded a trading post and the British built a cannon fort to protect it. The locals claimed the fort looked like a castle.
Palacios is only for those travelers willing to accept the primitive. Clouds of mosquitoes dance in the trees. The tiny no-see-em biters called jejenes occupy the shade and the beach. During the rains, the mud in the jungle is knee-deep. Year ‘round the heat and humidity are stifling, sweat being a fact of life. Hot breezeless nights leave sleepers exhausted. Bathrooms are outhouses over the river. Fish come in a swarm to eat human scat which falls into the river. Villagers later eat the fish and ingest parasite larvae previously ingested by the scat-eating fish, creating a cycle of sickness.
Soon Palacios will change and the hardier tourist will find the place tolerable. The hotel which Don Felix is constructing will someday be a treasure. Rooms will overlook the wide river and guests will be able to view the majesty of the setting. The sky will be full of parrots at dusk and dawn. The early morning river will be slick and guests will hear the tuk-tuk-tuk of the river boats. At night guests will hear loud grunts and groans seeming to be emitted by great beasts, but which are actually shouts of howler monkeys. These creatures sometimes scream like wounded pigs and at other times roar like a lion. The guests will be rewarded by colorful tropical sunsets directly into the river.
It was Sunday evening in Palacios, our last night in La Mosquitia. River traffic began to increase and muffled tuk-tuks echoed off the giant trees. From down the river appeared a procession of long cayucos steered by gray-haired gentlemen and carrying passengers dressed in white hats and shaded by white umbrellas. Short dugouts paddled by women dressed in white gowns followed the cayucos. The Garifuna were arriving, dressed in their best, and they docked their boats and walked into the green meadow and filled to overflow a tiny wooden church.
Darkness covered La Mosquitia and candlelight glowed inside the sanctuary. A lonely trumpet began to wail and the congregation began to sing. Then occurred a trumpet solo followed by applause and more singing and then another solo and clapping. The celebration spilled into the night and the growls of the howlers praised the music. Insects paused their climbing on mosquito nets in order to listen. We lay still, too, for we had joined the congregation in spirit.
The white airplane swept in low over the trees at the far end of the green grass strip. Village children momentarily watched it approach before fleeing the landing site. After the plane had taxied to us and stopped, we carried our packs aboard and took a seat. Without delay, the aircraft swung around and hurried to the far end of the strip and turned again. Then the pilot pushed forward the throttle and we began to leap and bounce across the grass. One last bounce and we were airborne, up and out and vanished from La Mosquitia.
Below we could see brown water everywhere. The jungle was indeed flooded. It was obvious how isolated we had been at Palacios. Ours eyes scanned to the east, toward Ibans and Brus, where we had hoped to go. The land was covered by water. The two big lagoons looked stained. As the plane climbed and banked and turned westward, we could see rivers meandering wildly in the jungle. We could see no roads. The mountains and jungle were dozens of shades of green, some bordering on blue. We followed the coastline and soon we were able to see palm and banana plantations, obvious due to their square or rectangular outlines. Down in the Caribbean were reefs appearing green in the blue water. Brown water stained the ocean where the rivers emptied into the sea. Islands appeared on the offshore horizon. We soared over Punta Castilla, the spot where Columbus first set foot on the mainland of the Americas.
About an hour later the airplane dipped and we could see a gray runway painted on a green plain. Scattered about were the unmistakable giant trees which lived there. La Ceiba. After landing, we shouldered our packs and walked out to the highway and flagged down a truck to carry us to a familiar beach.
It was evening. Samba on the radio. Some sipped from green bottles. Some held pool sticks. Miguel shuffled around proclaiming that “Papa got the beat.” A sliver of moon hung just above the rugged western ridge. Passage had transpired. We had been to the end of the road, and beyond.
Following a short rest in La Ceiba, we boarded a passenger boat named Tropical bound for the Bay Islands. The Caribbean was slick and blue and the fast ship skimmed easily and smoothly over the water. Half way through the two-hour ride, we could see the islands off the bow. They changed from blue to gray to green as we approached. Finally we docked at Coxen Hole, the port on Roatán, largest of the three Islas de la Bahia.
The Montana de Espiritu Santo along the Guatemala-Honduras border plunge underwater at the edge of the Caribbean at Punta Sal and then emerge far offshore as tropical mountain tops called the Bay Islands. Columbus anchored at these islands on his fourth voyage in 1502. Sir Henry Morgan used Roatán, one of the Bay Islands, as his pirate base from 1663 to 1671. The islands were finally given to Honduras in 1856 when the Americans and the English signed a treaty concerning Central America. Today these islands are a popular tourist destination where the language is English and prices are in dollars.
From Coxen Hole we found a car to carry us to the western end of the island, appropriately called Westend. This part of Roatán is less touched by tourists and hosts a marine sanctuary along a barrier reef. Our driver recommended the Sunset Inn and we stopped to inquire, afterwards deciding to lodge there. The Inn was a diving destination designed for low budget travelers not requiring high service and luxury. It was run by an Englishman and his friend from Ireland.
Our first morning at Westend, the oldest son participated in a diving course intended to refresh those skills learned when he became certified. His divemaster was Luis, a black islander with a Rastafarian haircut and a broad white toothy smile. While Luis and the young Gringo went through their routine, the others of us snorkeled in the warm clear water back of the reef. The refresher course ended with a handshake and an exclamation by Luis of “Let’s go diving.” The young Gringo and the islander became diving buddies for the duration of our stay on Roatán.
During the following week, dives and snorkeling occurred at selected spots along the barrier reef. We would board a dive boat named either Blue Tang or Wall Fever, and we would cruise out to the chosen locale and enjoy the majesty of the reef. We dove in spots called Green House Wall, Pillar Coral, Mandy’s Eel Garden and Lighthouse Reef. The water temperature was about 85 degrees and the visibility about 85 feet. We swam over several types of coral, including brain, staghorn, elkhorn and finger coral. We saw parrotfish, triggerfish, damselfish, surgeonfish, jacks, grunts, goat fish, wrasses, sergeant majors, tangs, grouper, moray eels, lobsters, and huge crabs the size of a wash tub. We could hear the coral eating parrotfish crunching coral in their jaws.
The barrier reef rose to the surface from depths of several hundred feet. There was almost no current, ensuring an easy swim. The dramatic sheer wall provided magic to the young Gringo diver. Deep canyons cut through the reef, these underwater arroyos having white sandy bottoms and deep caves in their walls housing large groupers. The snorkelers enjoyed the colorful fish and the feeling of floating.
A night dive was made on Lighthouse Reef. The young Gringo diver found that after dark the reef showed its true colors and the octopus came out of hiding. A hand waved through the water left a trail of glowing plankton. From forty feet down, the half-moon in the sky above was clearly visible.
The barrier reef environment presented some puzzles also. Notably absent were sea urchins, starfish, spadefish, and shellfish. The coral appeared damaged. The schools of fish were few and all the school fish were small. The puzzle spread to onshore also, where we observed a lack of seabirds. There were no pelicans, gulls, frigate birds, or petrels. Nor were there any feathers on the beach. The only shorebirds were black grackles and caged parrots.
We watched the young Gringo diver steadily build confidence throughout his experience on Roatán. He improved his buoyancy and flip entry and handling of the equipment. More importantly, he learned what to do, and he did it along with the master divers, and he became one of them, and in the end he was proud of himself, and his composure showed it, and he appeared more mature than his years would suggest. We began to see a slight cockiness when he walked over the tree lined road along the beach, picking up a free breakfast of ripe mangos that had fallen during the night.
Although the islanders spoke crazy English, they also used Spanish frequently, especially when they wished to avert the ears of Gringos. They referred to a friend as alero or pana. To ask one another what was going on, they asked “Que pedo, loco?” What’s fartin’, crazy? They, like the mainlanders, called light-skinned, blue eyed blondes, chele. This was the equivalent of the word güero in Mexico. Blondes were also called pateplumas, feathered foots.
Rudy lived is wooden house on Westend. He was a jolly black man from Trujillo. We liked to sip Port Royal with him and listen to his tales. One day he told us about the historical event for which Trujillo is recognized.
Trujillo was the place where an infamous American met his death. William Walker was born in Nashville, Tennessee in 1824. He was educated in Europe as a medical doctor and a lawyer. In 1853, at the age of twenty-nine, Walker invaded Baja California and Sonora, Mexico, with a filibustering force and declared the areas his new republic. He was quickly driven out. Two years later, Walker and fifty-six followers armed with modern rifles, invaded Nicaragua under the guise of assisting a belligerent local force. The filibusters captured a ship on Lake Nicaragua used by Accessory Transit Company to transport cargo and passengers from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. Accessory Transit Company was owned by Cornelius Vanderbilt. Shortly thereafter, Walker was able to capture the city of Grenada and take control of the country.
Using his newly acquired political power in Nicaragua, Walker brought recruits from the USA to aid him. He seized the Accessory Transit Company and gave it to some of his Nicaraguan friends. These cronies helped Walker to form a new Nicaraguan government and install the Gringo filibuster as the new President. Walker promptly suspended the Nicaraguan Constitution and allowed slavery, this act intended to win him the support of the southern states of the USA. Indeed the act succeeded and, in 1856, the USA recognized the Nicaraguan government of Walker.
Undaunted by the Gringo recognition of professional piracy, a coalition of Central American countries, funded by Cornelius Vanderbilt, began to fight the army of Walker and succeeded in defeating him in 1857. Walker himself surrendered to the US Navy to avoid capture. He was carried back to the USA and released, but six months later returned to Nicaragua with a new army. This expedition was quickly defeated and Walker was again transported to the USA and freed. Two years later, Walker made another attempt to invade Nicaragua. He landed at Roatán and then went to Trujillo, where he was captured by the British Navy and handed over to the Honduran authorities. After Walker was found guilty of war crimes, the Hondurans hanged him in September of 1860, the year Walker turned thirty-six.
After hearing this story, we sat puzzled for a while. Then we asked if Walker had made Trujillo famous because he had been hanged there. Rudy shook his head and laughed. He explained that Trujillo is not where the death of Walker occurred, rather it is the place where the death of black slavery in Central America occurred.
Our last night on Roatán, we sat at the end of the dock and listened to the night. Waves lapped against the wood pilings and palm fronds rustled in the gentle breeze. Far to the north flashed lightning. To the south, low in the sky, just to the southwest of Scorpio, stood the Southern Cross. The sight of an old friend brought a lump to at least one throat.
Rough seas chased us out of Coxen Hole to La Ceiba. Back on the mainland, we went directly to the terminal and boarded a crowded hot bus to San Pedro Sula. As we drove out of the land of the giant trees, we whispered good-by and thank you for all the pleasure we had enjoyed around the Sweetheart of Honduras.
The stuffed bus made several stops before reaching San Pedro Sula. We bought snacks of fried plátano chips called tejadas from street vendors and munched on them along with the Hondurans. Snacks are called golosinas in Honduras. A hard rain began about an hour out of San Pedro Sula. Many of the passengers were soaked because not all the windows would close. We were glad to leave for the last time any buses traveling eastward from San Pedro Sula. We had learned from our own experience as well as from local gossip that the worst buses in the country run between San Pedro Sula and Tocoa.
After exhibiting our growing experience by easily escaping the hustlers in the bus station, we secured a taxi to the Hotel Terrazas, recommended by a Honduran. We checked into a room with an air conditioner and showered before going on the street in search of dinner. Although cool and refreshing afternoon thunderstorms had softened our landing in the Brazilianesque city, the evening sun soon warmed the streets, and steam began to rise, and the runoff of brown water brought the stench of ripe sewage, ending the blissful aroma of fresh rain and awakening us to the reality of being in San Pedro Sewage.
After dinner we returned to the room and the children learned how to prepare a backpack to leave in hotel storage. They were taught a way to tie the pack so that they could later determine if it had been opened. We had decided to leave one pack and the rod tube at Hotel Terrazas while we traveled northwest. This was convenient and possible because we would be returning to San Pedro Sula to catch our departure plane to El Norte.
The following morning we walked several blocks to a street corner where the bus departs to Copán, the ruins of an ancient Maya city. When we pulled away from the curb, the bus was only half full. Outside San Pedro Sula, we began to climb up the valley of the Río Chamelecon. To the north spread the Sierra del Espiritu Santo, and we remarked that we had just departed the eastern extension of these mountains at the Bay Islands. Several hours later we arrived at a major junction called La Entrada. One road continued on to Santa Rosa de Copán, and our road veered off to Ruinas Copán. Shortly beyond the junction, soft rain began to fall and the Mayaesque mountains hid their tops in the clouds. The road became one of gravel and the potholes filled with red water.
Suddenly, just after rounding a curve, the village of Copán lay on the mountainsides in front of us. White adobe walls supported red tile roofs snuggled in lush greenery. The bus clapped over cobblestone streets as it entered the village. We unloaded and found the Hotel Brisas, claiming a private room with a wide upstairs terrace exposing a splendid view. It was one of the nicest rooms of our trip.
Roosters awakened us the following morning. We enjoyed a mango breakfast and then walked two kilometers to the ruins of Copán, now an international destination for tourists. The longhaired Gringa and the old rodsman had first visited Copán 25 years previous and found it empty of tourists. Since that time, the United Nations has designated the ruins as a Heritage of Man site and the organization has pumped money into the development of the resource. With the money came regulations and rules, so now the park is as controlled as Yellowstone National Park in the USA. After paying a modest entry fee, we strolled amongst monkeys, deer and parrots into the old Maya city.
In 1836, John Stephens, an American lawyer and adventurer, attended a conference in London where he met English artist Frederick Catherwood. After returning to the USA, Stephens read two accounts of supposed lost cities in Central America and Mexico. These accounts had been written by a Spanish officer and an Irish adventurer. Stephens decided to look for the lost cities and he invited Catherwood to come along so that sketches could be furnished as proof of discovery, these being required because European and American scholars all claimed that there could not have been any sophisticated civilizations developed in the New World. The two departed for Central America in October of 1839.
After arriving in British Honduras, the travelers made their way through Guatemala and over the Mica Mountains into Honduras. The journey was perilous and all suffered exhaustion and endured hardship, Catherwood contacting malaria. In addition, the two had been arrested and briefly detained by Guatemalan officials. Eventually they passed into Honduras and found the village of Copán. No one there claimed knowledge of any ruins, but Stephens doubted their veracity, Stephens believing that the local patrón had told his Indians to remain silent. Finally Stephens was able to persuade the patrón to allow a single Indian to guide him to a spot the patrón said might hold ruins.
Stephens was guided along the Río Copán and then led across it. As he stared through the trees, he could see what appeared to be a high wall. After arriving there and examining it, there could be no doubt that the stone wall had been made by man. He skirted the wall and soon realized that it had been the back side of a huge structure that had been the amphitheater of an elaborate Maya city. Stephens had found Copán.
Following the encounter, Stephens began to recruit laborers to help excavate the ruins. This angered the local patrón and he threatened Stephens. This led to the proposal by Stephens that the patrón sell Copán to him. They agreed on a price of $50 and a deed and letter of ownership was presented to Stephens during an official ceremony. Excavation accelerated and Catherwood began to compose his sketches.
After returning to the USA, Stephens and Catherwood published their work. The book prompted an intense controversy, seeding new interest in the Mayas. Stephens and Catherwood would later return to Yucatan to discover ruins there. Stephens is memorialized as the Father of Maya Archeology.
The ruins of Copán are composed of a vast city extending outward from a central area containing the acropolis, ball court, pyramids and houses of the nobility. Surrounding the city center are settlements for the working class and ceremonial sites. The structures are built of stones that have been elaborately carved into figures representing deities. There are also tall stones called stellae which were carved to honor each of the emperors of the sixteen dynasties. Great stairways are carved to honor the Maya calendar.
Copán was centered in a rich valley. Archeologists claim that the city flourished from about AD 300 to AD 900, the Classic Period of the Maya. As elsewhere amongst the Maya, at about AD 900, the culture essentially vanished. It was later reformed and centered in Yucatán as opposed to the Maya highlands.
The valley of Copán is estimated to have contained a population of about 20,000 by the time it was inexplicably abandoned. Archeologists theorize that deforestation caused by slash and burn clearing in order to grow crops led to erosion and loss of farmland. These conditions initiated a period of inadequate food supply, throwing the empire into famine and destroying the culture. Truly, however, no one knows what happened to the Maya.
The great pyramid at Copán has been found to contain actually four pyramids, meaning that three are buried. Exploratory tunnels bored into the great pyramid discovered these earlier pyramids. We were provided a special guided trip into the underground, not open to public, after telling the Park Director that we had visited Copán 25 years previous and that we wished to see what has been discovered since that time. Our tour revealed that the underground contains four distinct levels. We entered the second level and walked through dimly lit tunnels to the third. The walls were pink and elaborately carved. Inside burial chambers in the third level have been found gold, ceramics, fabrics, offerings and skeletons. Later, in the museum in Copán village, we would see a display of the skeleton of a shaman laid beside his paraphernalia and offerings. Such had been found in the underground of the great pyramid.
During our trip to Copán in the early 1970s, we had befriended a boy of about ten years of age named Miguel. We had taken a picture of him, and over the years, whenever we would pull out the slides for a viewing, we would see Miguel smiling at us. We were determined to find our old friend, so we began to ask for any Miguel who might be about 35 years old. Several Miguels came to find us, but none was our Miguel. We were told that a Miguel who had frequented the ruins years ago had moved away.
One morning while crossing the plaza, we were approached by a short, bronze, wiry Indian wearing a white hat pulled low over his eyes. He asked if we sought Miguel. We acknowledged that we did, and suddenly we realized that standing before us was our Miguel. All of us entered a restaurant and talked. Miguel had heard from a cousin that Gringos were seeking a Miguel of about his age. Already had come several, but the Gringos claimed the right one had not appeared. Miguel had hurried to Copán, fearful that the Gringos had left town, as he knew that most tourists stay only one day. He had gone to a place where we were known and asked about our appearance. Then he had waited in the plaza, hopeful we would pass. Of course we had, and he had found us.
The appearance of Miguel caused a circle to close. We savored the moment by walking to the Maya ruins and sitting atop the great pyramid and talking and planning for the coming days together. “Miguel, gracias a Dios that us you found. Already is filled now the circle of years that run.” “Si, mis amigos. Since then have happened six children by me and two by you. It is blessed by God this life we share.” “Si, Miguel. Now tomorrow we travel as one together to arrive under the shade of the friendship that God has caused us to share.”
Dark clouds built in the late afternoon. The rumble of thunder rolled through distant green mountains. Above hung circles of soaring vultures. The red flowers of acacia trees set ablaze the greenery. Ravens pecked on mangos dripping from trees. Marimba music purred from a Guatemalan radio station. Birdsong spread over red roofs. The gray shadow of rain blurred a distant peak. Suddenly wisped a soft cool breeze to comfort us.
At dawn we walked to the end of a cobblestone street on the edge of Copán and continued onto a dirt trail leading into the green mountains. We were bound for the rock carvings called Los Zapos. Soon we crossed an ancient stone bridge over the Rio Copán and we began to climb steadily up an old foot trail into the mountains. Occasionally we would pause to enjoy the view of red and white Copán village on the slopes of the mountain across the river. As we climbed higher, we began to see the high wall at Copán ruins where Stephens had first encountered the Maya city. At the end of the trail we arrived at The Frogs.
Los Zapos is an outcrop of rocks which were carved by the Mayas into images of frogs. The Mayas held the frog as sacred and a protector of crops. There were no insecticides available to the Mayas other than natural pesticides. The frog served as such. The Mayas gathered frogs to place in the crop fields to eat the insects attacking the plants. The rock at Los Zapos were carved to honor the crop protectors.
Also at Los Zapos is a wide flat rock carved so that a woman could lay on it and give birth. Shamans would bring selected women to the sacred site for birthing, as it was believed that birth before the frog carvings ensured a healthy life.
After descending from Los Zapos and having a late breakfast, we loaded into the rear of a red pickup for an excursion to the hot spring at Aguas Calientes. Miguel had arranged for a friend of his to carry us there. We bumped out of Copán and began to climb a narrow rough road into the mountains along the border with Guatemala. Coffee plants and corn fields dotted the forested landscape. Indians drove corn-burdened mules alongside the road. Wide swatches of forest had been cleared by slash and burn methods and piles of trees smoldered on the slopes. It was evident that the forest was being destroyed.
The road ended at a village high in the mountains. We left the truck and walked to where boiling volcanic water poured from a vent into a small river. The water was so hot that it steamed even in the humid tropical air. A wide pool in the river was warmed. We swam and floated in the pool, looking up at the orchids coloring the trees overhanging the water and listening to the sharp cries of hundreds of tiny blue birds scampering through the branches. It was almost dark by the time we arrived back in Copán.
Walking in the dark over a cobblestone street toward the hotel from the restaurant, we heard music and were drawn to it. We found ourselves standing in front of an evangelical church. Inside, a band composed of two guitarists and a keyboard player led the singing of “Amistad, amistad, la gloria de amistad.” A congregation of swaying arms and weeping eyes filled the church. Outside sat wannabes, listening and swaying. Only a wide door separated the two groups. We recollected a dicho from the 60s: There are things known and there are things unknown and in between are The Doors. The congregation was clearly uplifted. We noticed that there was no Gringo preacher. On the corner enjoying the music stood several young men rolling a joint. An approaching thunderstorm over Copán ruins provided a mystical backdrop.
We left the church when the preaching began and found some tall steps upon which to sit. It was dark and quiet except for the rolling of thunder and the flashes of lightning. Suddenly through the stillness we heard a rumble rushing toward us. Wind? No. It was rain striking broadleaf plants. We ran over cobblestones toward the hotel. The rain brought freshness. Then it was calm.
Morning was fresh and cool after the rain of the previous night. We found Miguel and caught a local bus to the small village of Santa Rita. A market in the plaza facing the church was in progress. From the belfry, a white robed priest pulled the rope several times, and the loud tolling of the bell called his parishioners to Mass. We searched for chiles, but saw only the usual jalapeños and gordas.
From the plaza at Santa Rita we walked along a foot trail leading up a river valley. Thatched huts and corn fields dotted the slopes of the forested mountains and the green river purred softly. Near the top of the first pass, we left the trail and walked across a meadow covered with orange wildflowers into a side canyon. There we found a faint path through tall trees shading coffee plants. At the end of the canyon we arrived at a waterfall breaking through high cliffs in the mountains of the rain forest. There we swam in a wide shaded pool under the falls. Red orchids grew on the trees and yellow-tailed birds sang from moss covered branches. Big blue butterflies danced over the pool before disappearing into clusters of broadleaf plants growing in spots where sunshine beamed through the trees. There was no one there but us. The oldest son remarked that we had come to Paradise.
After descending from the falls and while sipping Port Royal at a local comedor, we considered the invasion of Paradise by outsiders bearing unwanted influences. Police in Copán have told the locals that if they go near the Gringo bar after hours, and if there is any problem, that the locals will be at fault. Signs in Spanish proclaiming such have been posted in the market. This means that Gringos are to be tolerated because of the dollars they bring, despite the resulting disruption of local culture. Away from Copán, the Indians do not permit Gringos to enter some of their outlying villages for fear of contamination of their culture. Signs in English proclaiming such have been posted in the market of Copán.
Strolling after dinner one evening, we heard music and we crossed the plaza to enter the Municipal Palace to find a marimba band entertaining the locals. Lively couples danced over a hardwood floor. On a table was spread a feast of local delicacies. Occasionally a dog would enter unmolested and sniff around before slowly leaving. The drummer was recognized as a guide at Copán ruins. As we sat and enjoyed the occasion, several villagers recognized us and came over to welcome us. We felt grateful to be in Copán.
Near the plaza, a Guatemalan Señora had set up a shop to sell weavings from her country. We found the shop a natural place to visit, as we had lived in Guatemala during the early 1970s. There we had collected weavings. To our dismay, the quality of the art had deteriorated badly during the recent 25 years. The great weaving center at Nebaj, the village which had produced the winning costume in the Miss Universe contest, had been overrun by the Military during the 1980s. The villagers had been jailed in detention centers and the art of weaving had been lost. When the Señora had shown us examples of contemporary Nebaj art, we had almost cried at the inferior work, and when the Señora presented her explanation of what had happened to Nebaj, it brought tears to her own eyes.
One afternoon the oldest son was approached in the plaza by a fellow diver from the Bay Islands. Their camaraderie was evident by the lingering handshake and the smiles. It was the fellowship of the road. The encounter was a sharp contrast to the sadness of saying good-by to a traveler. Departures had been the most difficult experience of the trip for the children. They complained that new friendships came to sudden painful endings and resulting despair. They frowned upon realizing that never to be seen again were their fleeting friends. So the chance meeting in the plaza of Copán brought smiles to each of the children, for it spawned hope that other such meetings might occur.
During our stay in the valley of Copán, Venus, planet of the Mayas, reached her greatest brilliance and her highest elevation in the sky of this century. We could see her even during the day. She appeared as a crescent, and she shined on us throughout our stay in the old enchanted Maya city of Copán.
The Day of the Daykeeper
The Maya calendar is influenced heavily by the planet Venus. Good fortune is generated by the relationship of certain days in the 260-day Venus cycle to other celestial events. To take advantage of the especially favorable Venus cycle during our visit to Copán, we sought a Maya Daykeeper to bestow upon us in ceremony the blessing of good fortune.
Miguel and the old fisherman met the night of the first full moon of June. A second full moon, a blue moon, would come later in the month. The brilliant round disc glowed brightly above the ancient church, bathing it in pale white moon glow while casting long shadows of palm trees onto the plaza. Miguel had come from his second visit with the Daykeeper, a Chortiz Maya who lived in the nearby village of Carisalito. Several days previous, the Daykeeper had determined that the proper day for the ceremony was the one following the full moon, a day he called Toh. Miguel had just returned from Carisalito, where he had confirmed with the Daykeeper that we would arrive the following day.
With everything ready, Miguel and the Gringo fisherman touched hands under the shadow of the old church. Miguel walked away, his shoes clapping on the cobblestones and the echo resonating through the hushed village. The old rodsman sat alone on a plaza bench and watched the moon and the drifting clouds. Suddenly the brilliant moon was covered by clouds, casting the village into darkness. Instantly all the roosters in the village began to complain. When the clouds drifted on by and the moonlight returned, the roosters became quiet and peaceful again.
We had been on the road a full month when we awakened on the day of the Daykeeper. Miguel was sitting outside on the terrace. We walked to the market and, following the instructions given by the Daykeeper to Miguel, we bought six small candles colored red, blue, green, yellow, pink and orange. In addition to the small candles, we bought two tall yellow candles. To our purchases we added garlic, incense, mira, a cigar and eight corn husk wrapped packages of copál. Mira is a black fragrant seed and copál is the fragrant resin of the palo jiote tree. With our offerings in hand, we left the market and turned toward the west. Sunshine of the day called Toh guided our way.
We walked for an hour over a narrow path through the forest before arriving at the forbidden village of Carisalito. Children who happened to see us fled into their huts, peeking back at us after we had passed. Miguel assured several curious men that we were only going to the hut of the Daykeeper. Finally, on a hill overlooking a corn field, we came to where the Daykeeper lived. His spot was composed of a cooking hut and a ceremonial hut. While we awaited him, his old bent wife served us hot tortillas rolled around chunks of rock salt.
Suddenly we were beckoned to the ceremonial hut by the old woman. We entered the darkness. After our eyes had adjusted, we could see small, short, yellow candles burning in a pool of wax on the dirt floor. In the corner on a low bench sat a tiny old man. He wore baggy pants and a shirt with the long sleeves rolled to his elbows. His head and feet were bare. He motioned us toward him and we sat on the bench and on the floor. We began to speak softly, almost whispering, telling him that we wished for him to bestow upon us good fortune.
After speaking, we presented to him the bag of offerings we had brought. He examined each item and then rose and crossed the dirt floor to the back wall of the hut to a table on which stood a small shrine composed of a purple clad doll surrounded by flowers. Before it he placed the offerings and then returned to sit beside us on the bench.
For the first time he spoke. His voice was clear and deep and he spoke in a normal tone rather than whispering. First, he asked este punta de aguante es de Méjico o de Los Estados, if we lived in Mexico or the USA. He referred to our house as the point of fortitude. Then he asked usted me puede apuntar el corecto de aqui a Méjico para Los Estados y por donde esta que la cosa aguante, if we could sketch him a map which would indicate Copán, Mexico and the point of fortitude where we lived. He told us hicimos nosotros trabajo con mensaje allí de Méjico que tenia un hijo de tres y vengo hizo trabajo y paso al otro lado, that he had done work from his hut for a boy of three years of age who was in Mexico and that the work had passed to the other side. He said that he needed a point of focus relative to Mexico, which was his point of reference.
On a piece of newspaper used to wrap candles, we sketched him a map. He studied it and then pointed to the long peninsula we had drawn and we said that it was Baja California. He nodded knowingly and remarked that we live in the north and that it was pura lejos, very far. He said podemos trabajar para que madaria lleva La Muchacha que poner mensaje, we can work in order that it would command The Girl to put the message. He pointed to the purple clad doll when he mentioned the Muchacha. Seemingly satisfied, the tiny old man mumbled pura lejos, pura lejos and then tossed the paper onto the floor.
Turning to speak to us, the Daykeeper said that the small colored candles le van como telegrama, would go like a telegram. He pointed to the large candles and said esas fuerzas que ustedes quieren necesita candelas de a cinco, that the forces we wanted needed candles that cost five lempira. He continued to point at the large candles and said estos se la voy a poner para la fuerza, that he would use the big candles to make force. He pointed to the longhaired Gringa and asked es Señora de usted, is she the wife? We nodded and he said entonces quema dos candelas como este de a cinco, that we would burn two large candles.
The Daykeeper rose and pointed to the corn husks of copál and said se quema ocho suertes, that we would burn eight lucks, that he would do so para que llega tanto el humo, in order that much smoke would arrive. He said quiere que hacer bambeado de cincuenta a setenta hasta noventa hasta cincuenta de todos vamos, that he wanted the copál to be danced from fifty to seventy until ninety until fifty, all of them gone. He explained entonces quema en un tesonero para ascender, that the copál would be burned in a bowl so that it would ascend.
The Daykeeper motioned that we should relocate our seating and he instructed each person as to where to sit. While we shifted our positions, I turned on my video camera. From that recording I have reconstituted this presentation of his blessing.
The Daykeeper stepped to the table and selected the offerings and began to arrange them on the dirt floor in front of the shrine. He made a half circle of the small colored candles by melting the bottom of each one and then sticking the hot wax to the dirt so as to hold upright the candle. Behind the colored telegrams, the tiny man positioned the two tall yellow candles. He broke open the corn husk wrappers holding the copál and began to place the round pieces of resin inside the half circle and in front of the two tall yellow forces. He ordered the black lucks into four rows containing seven pieces of copál in each row. The last four copales of the thirty-two pieces total, he placed at the feet of the purple doll called La Muchacha. Finally, inside the circle he placed the garlic, incense and mira. He determined that the cigar was not needed and he returned it to us. In front of the circle he placed a large ceramic bowl containing red glowing coals. Finished, he stepped back and paused slightly.
The tiny old Chortiz Maya reached and took one of the small yellow candles from the half circle and lit it from one of the short yellow candles already burning. He stood before the ring of candles and offerings and crossed himself and then opened his arms and began to chant while holding the small yellow candle in his left hand.
Nombre de su Padre. Es que hacer su protejido pide su presencia para su buena suerte su buena gracias. Aqui se presenta bajo de sus cosas bajo al poder de sus ministros. In the name of your Father. It is to make your protection he asks your presence for good luck and good thanks. Here it is presented under your things, under the power of your ministers.
The Daykeeper continued his chant while stooping to light all the other candles. Para que trabajo con sus suertes sus montanas cumbres saltas y berreras para mis clientes Señor Ministro vamos a trabajar hoy dia. In order that I work with your lucks, your mountains, passes, waterfalls and foot trails for my clients, Señor Minister, we are going to work the day of today.
After the candles were all glowing, he took four pieces of copál and dropped them into the bowl of hot coals. A sizzling sound began and white smoke commenced to boil from the old red ceramic bowl. Soon the hut was filled with a thick white smoke bearing the aroma of fresh honeysuckle. The chant continued. Al lado oriente poniente al norte son veinte ocho pesas asientos por el nombre de Jesus Cristo por el nombre de Padre Eterno. To the east side pointing north are 28 heavy footprints by the name of Jesus Christ and the Eternal Father.
The tiny Daykeeper grasped the incense, mira and garlic and dropped them into the smoking bowl, all the while continuing the cadence of his chant. Bajo del cuerno del Señor Ministro, bajo del cuerno del Señor Gobernador pasa la siguiente para llamar su presencia para aquellas cumbres altas. Asi le suplico del espiritu Padre Celestial para que ellos sean bendicidos por el angel mio para hacer este trabajo de la buena suerte. Under the horn of Señor Minister, under the horn of Señor Governor, let the following happen so as to call your presence from the high passes. As such I beseech the spirit of the Celestial Father in order that my clients are blessed by my angel during this work of good luck.
Still holding the yellow candle in his left hand, the Daykeeper grasped a long stick in his right hand and stirred the contents of the bowl. It began to sizzle sharply and he dropped in four more pieces of copál. Fragrant thick white smoke boiled out of the bowl and further clouded the already hazy hut.
The Daykeeper crossed himself with his right hand, never ceasing to chant. Señor Ministro, Señor Puertero de Gloria, como lumbrador de cielo tenga la presencia por la protejida se luchear por se siente Dios. Asi le tenga la licencia para que sea protejida abajo de todo. Señor Minister, Señor Gatekeeper to Glory, as illuminator of Heaven have the presence for our protection during the battle for the feeling of God.
Asi le pidimos para tener presencia con la cincuenta mil ochenta porciento ochenta mil milion estados para que sean protejida. Ellos son cuatro mas bajo el Ministro bajo el Puertero. As such we ask in order to have your presence with the fifty thousand eighty percent eighty thousand million souls in order that they be protected. These are four more under the Minister, under the Gatekeeper.
Extending his right hand toward the shrine on the table, the Daykeeper beckoned to the doll he called La Muchacha. Señor Ministro Puertero bajo la temperatura de Santa Magdalena Veronica trabajamos el dia hoy para que usean proteger con la buena suerte la buena gracias. Dios Padre y Madre Santisima de su Padre se presente por El Nino Celestial pasar lo siguiente bajo de divino del lado oriente aponiente al norte al sur. Señor Minister Gatekeeper under the protection of Saint Magdalena Veronica we work today in order that good luck and good thanks protect us. Father God and most saintly Mother of her Father, present to the Holy Child that this may happen under the divine of the eastern side pointing north to south.
Four more pieces of copál were dropped into the bowl and more white smoke billowed out. The hut was a solid cloud inside and it was impossible to see across the room. Through holes in the roof bolted sunshine. The Daykeeper stood in a brilliant sunbeam, grasping the yellow candle in his left hand and holding his right hand against his face, his head turned up toward the shaft of light coming through the roof. He appeared to be floating off the floor, elevated by the sunbeam.
Señor Ministro mayor paroquial divino paroquial de chele por abriendo las fuertes aqui le van a conocer setenta mil estados. Señor Angel de Nino Señor Ministro de Arriba usted para la presencia para su Padre Ministro Padre Eterno para hacer protejida bajo de setenta mil grados levantacion aire bajo su temperatura de setenta mil kilometros distancia de la elevacion de Méjico para Los Estados representa el lado del norte. Señor Minister of the major divine parish, of the parish of the ones with blue eyes, by opening the strengths here they will know the seventy thousand souls. Señor Angel of the Child, Señor Minister of Above, you are for the presence for the Father, the Minister Father Eternal for making protection under the seventy thousand degrees of rising air, under the protection of seventy thousand kilometers of distance of elevation between Mexico and the United States, which represents the north.
Ella Dios Madre Santisima representa con su Padre este Nino Celestial el Nino Ministro Nino Puertero bajo de todos angeles divinos administradores del Puertero de chele que son 28 pesas asientos abran las puertas cheles bellas santisimas para todos cheles que quieren tener la buena suerte la buena gracias. Saintly Mother God, represent to your Father the Holy Child, the Child Minister, the Child Gatekeeper under all the divine angels, the administrators of the Gatekeeper of the ones with blue eyes, that 28 heavy footprints open the beautiful holy doors of the ones with blue eyes so that all the ones with blue eyes who want so will have good luck and good thanks.
The Daykeeper stirred the smoking copál bowl and then dropped in four more copál pieces. El Señor Ministro Señor Puertero para tener su presencia para El Nino Gobernador de chele para todos mis clientes representa Dios Padre para llevar esto poder y milagro para los cheles con la buena suerte la buena gracias. Asi le pidimos la licencia que ambular con gente que va a la sierra con todos pastoriales de chivas con todos los administradores del Puertero. Señor Minister, Señor Gatekeeper, give us your presence with the Child Governor of the ones with blue eyes so that my clients are represented before Father God, who carries this power and miracle to the ones with blue eyes and gives them the good luck and good thanks. As such we ask for the license to wander with people who go to the mountain with all the shepherds and administrators of the Gatekeeper.
Señor Ministro Señor Puertero gracias su presencia para nuestro Padre para El Nino Celestial de cheles abriendo el puerto del cielo. Vamos entonces levacion de aire bajo la temperatura de Santa Magdalena para hacer protejida y bendicido. Señor Ministro Puertero para todos cheles de arriba para todos cheles de gloria representa como Señor Ministro al Señor Puertero alumbre del aire de levacion. Señor Minister, Señor Gatekeeper, thanks for your presence with our Father and with the Celestial Child of the ones with blue eyes, and for opening the port of heaven to the ones with blue eyes. Then we will raise the air under the protection of Saint Magdalena in order to grant protection and blessings to the ones with blue eyes. Señor Minister Gatekeeper, for all the ones with blue eyes above and for all the ones with blue eyes of glory, it is represented by Señor Minister to Señor Gatekeeper that he illuminate the rising air.
Crossing himself, the Daykeeper took four pieces of copál off the newspaper and dropped them into the copál bowl. After a few seconds, we could hear the sizzle of melting resin and the volume of white smoke rising from the bowl increased. Padre Señor Ministro Padre Puertero preste el agua bien para poniente al norte su corriente para el norte que el trabajo se llevamos llegar hasta Los Estados. Nombre de Pasion Ministro al Señor Puertero alumbrador se presencia a esta Madre llega su trabajo a Los Estados se presencia bajo de cuerno de Padre Eterno de tres mil cartones pongale a las dos de la noche setenta mil kilometros. Nombre de su Padre para que tenga la suerte las clientes en cualquer hora u cualquer dia representa con esta Madre Santisima de la Gloria. Father Señor Minister, Father Gatekeeper, help the good water pointing north keep her current to the north so that the work she carries for us arrives in the United States. In the name of passion, Minister to the Gatekeeper who lights the way, present to the Mother the arrival of the work in the United States, and present it under the horn of the Eternal Father, and of the three thousand boxes, put them at two o’clock at night seventy thousand kilometers. In the name of your Father give my clients good luck at whatever hour or whatever day and represent that it comes from the Saintly Mother of Glory.
For the sixth time, the Daykeeper dropped four copál lucks into the holy bowl.
Alegre Padre asi trae presencia con su tesonero madera con su tesonero del estado. Nino Gobernador paso lo siguiente para que mi trabajo sea imediatemente a su puerto. Señor Puertero da licencia por su Ministro no dejentase de estos grandes mandares para la elevacion de aire mio que va a coger su buenas cumbres altas bajas y barreras. Señor Ministro Gobernador donde es su trabajo de aqui a Los Estados para Méjico a Baja California al frontera al administradores a Los Estados al Gobernador paso lo siguiente. Happy Father, as such, bring your presence with your wooden holy bowl, your bowl of souls. Child Governor, let the following happen so that my work will be immediately in your port. Señor Gatekeeper, give license to your minister so that he will not fail in these grand commandments to elevate my air that goes to seize your good passes high and low and your foot paths. Señor Minister Governor, from here where is your work, let it happen to pass to the United States through Mexico and Baja California to the border to the administrators to the United States to the Governor.
The inside of the ceremonial hut had become a cloud. Strangely, the honeysuckle smoke had turned blue. In a shaft of smoky light floated the Daykeeper, suspended in the sunbeam, offering his glowing yellow candle to the tiny doll La Muchacha.
Ella Dios Madre Santisima de su Padre bajo la temperatura de Santa Magdalena Veronica a los setenta mil estados para llegar su trabajo por el lado norte. Para sus suertes la buena gracias nuestro Padre. Amen. Her Saintly Mother God of her Father, under the protection of Saint Magdelena Veronica, that the seventy thousand souls carry your work to the north side. For your lucks we give thanks our Father. Amen.
With a sudden sharp spit of breath, the Daykeeper blew out the yellow candle he had been holding in his left hand since the beginning of the sacrament. Then he reached for the final four pieces of copál, the seventh time he had taken four heavy footprints, and he dropped the black lucks into the smoldering bowl. He took the long slender stick and stirred the tesonero and white smoke arose in a billowing cloud. The air was ascending, the smoke being sent afar in a current headed northward across Mexico toward the States, to the Governor of the Cheles, the Governor of the Ones With Blue Eyes. The message telegraphed by the tiny colored candles, given force by the tall yellow candles and carried by the honeysuckle copál smoke was enroute, blessed by the Ministers, the Madre Santisima, the Governors and the Gatekeeper.
The tiny Chortiz Maya pointed to the ceramic bowl and told us to sit still and watch the smoke ascend. He told us that when all the copál had been consumed and all the small telegram candles had burned down to colored spots on the floor, we should rise and leave the ceremonial hut. Then he stepped to the old wooden door, pulled it open and left us alone in the blue smoke pierced by sunbeams.
In stillness we gazed at the sweet fumes rising from the copál bowl. The fragrance of honeysuckle enriched the silent room and we sat in rapture. Only once was the spell broken, this when the Daykeeper suddenly stepped into the hut to stir the remaining contents of the ceremonial ceramic vessel.
After all the copál had burned from the bowl, and after all the colored candle telegrams had burned to puddles of wax on the dirt floor, the Daykeeper entered the ceremonial hut for the last time. He told us that the two tall yellow candles would continue burning until dusk. Then he would remove them from the alter and place them into the copál bowl. He pointed to the shrine to remind us that four pieces of copál lay before the purple clad doll, La Muchacha. These were the final pieces of the total of thirty-two, making eight lucks. He said that he would also put the copál into the bowl with the two tall candles and then add hot coals. As they burned together, the ceremony would be complete, La Muchacha would have placed our message, and our union with good luck would be consummated. The Daykeeper crossed himself and bowed to the shrine and motioned us to leave the hut. He remained inside and we never saw him again.
We departed the ceremonial hut and started down the trail leading into the trees. No one talked. In rapture and silence we walked all the way back to Copán. In the Restaurante Tunkul we sat still and sipped cold Port Royals and lemonade. Finally we began to speak of our impressions. All of us had been wonderfully uplifted by the ceremony. We all felt as though we had been touched by the magic. Miguel was particularly impressed and he confessed that he had never seen nor heard of such a ritual as we had attended. The children exclaimed that they had never even imagined anything such as they had witnessed. We lifted our bottles and glasses and toasted the Daykeeper.
On the street outside the Tunkul, we said good-by to Miguel. It was another painful parting for the children, who complained that it was not fair to have someone so important just disappear forever. We told them it was one of the prices of the road. At the same time, we reminded them that we had said good-by to Miguel once before, twenty-five years previous, and that we had nevertheless met again. We cautioned them that never is too distant to contemplate.
Back at the hotel, we showered, washing the honeysuckle aroma of copál from our hair. After relaxing on the terrace and staring into the green mountains, we strolled over the cobblestones to dinner. We sat around a quiet table and smiled at a short yellow candle burning in the center. The unknowing might suspect coincidence.
At dusk we rose in the candlelight around the table and clicked together our bottle bottoms. To the tall yellow forces we toasted. We could picture the tiny old Maya removing the candles from the altar and placing them into the copál bowl. We could hear them sizzling and we could see the Daykeeper toss the last four pieces of copál into the bowl. Eight lucks total and two tall forces then would burn, and the smoke would carry the force across Mexico to Los Estados to ensure us the good luck, the buena suerte.
So ended Toh, the day of the Daykeeper.
Gracias La Esperanza
The almost empty bus rolled out of Copán at dawn. Inside we sat quietly, still awestruck from the ceremony of the Daykeeper we had witnessed the previous day. We traveled to La Entrada before changing buses to continue on to Santa Rosa de Copán. The highway climbed into cool mountain air and a soft rain freshened the breeze. At Santa Rosa we departed the bus at the terminal outside town and made a long climb up a steep hill to the old colonial town that is the capital of the Department of Copán. We walked the narrow streets between white buildings with wrought iron window bars and red roofs until we found a hotel. After checking in we passed to the market, but found it mostly closed, so we opted for Port Royal and lemonade.
The following morning the market was full of shoppers and we bought machetes and scabbards plus a colorful hammock. Then we hiked down the hill to the bus lot, hoping to go on to Gracias. We discovered that the only bus leaves early in the morning or late in the evening, so we chose to take a bus that went halfway to Gracias before veering off toward another town.
At the village of Las Flores, our bus stopped and we climbed out, the bus then continuing on toward a distant destination. We placed our packs beside the road and began to wait for a passing vehicle. After a while, a pickup came by and stopped when we presented a desire for a ride. We threw our packs in the rear and climbed in. The winding road climbed higher into the mountains and soon we came to the edge of Gracias. Since the pickup was going another way, we jumped out and waved good-by to the friendly driver.
We walked into Gracias over cobblestone streets. The village was dirty and poor, her colonial buildings in decay, the whitewash fading and peeling to show brown adobe walls. Gracias had been the first capital of Central America. The once ornate buildings facing the plaza were so deteriorated that they had been abandoned.
On a hill overlooking the town stood a high walled colonial white fort with round guard towers at each corner and a gate bordered by cannons. From this abandoned fortification, we could view a high green range to the north that is a cloud forest called Cerros de Opalaca. Waterfalls cascading down the sheer slopes seemed as silver ribbons shining in the sunshine.
The market in Gracias yielded the first unique chiles we had been able to purchase in Honduras. We ate the hot red round panicitos with such gusto that we later chuckled about having gone cold turkey and suddenly scored a stash to revive a habit.
About eight kilometers outside Gracias is a forested canyon where hot springs bubble up from subterranean volcanic water. We walked there and found large pools of clear hot water shaded by giant trees. We swam and bathed and enjoyed the solitude. On the walk back to Gracias, we were offered a ride in a pickup from a local coffee finca owner.
We traveled with him to his finca on the slopes of the Cerros de Opalaca. He guided us through his shaded coffee forest and his sunny vegetable fields of corn, cabbage, onions and sweet peppers. He complained that he found it difficult to hire good workers, that women and children worked best, and he claimed that Catrachos are lazy because they have been given too much by the Liberal government. Darkness had covered us as we descended from his finca. From the rear of the pickup we smiled at the million points of light glittering over the meadows. The fireflies were flashing good-by to us.
Of locals in Gracias, we inquired about how to continue to La Esperanza. We learned that no buses traveled there. Sometimes pickups would ply the rough mountain road, but there was no schedule of when such a vehicle might go. Once we reached La Esperanza, buses could be found once again.
Effectively, we had come to the western edge of a gap. We had to cross the breach in order to arrive at La Esperanza, on the eastern edge of the gap. Hitchhiking and walking were the only means of travel. For a hundred kilometers through the rugged mountains there would be no assurances that we would find a ride or a room. With slight smiles, we realized that we had come to the end of the road again. The Opalaca Gap lay before us.
At dawn we slipped out of the hotel. The cobblestone streets were deserted and we walked silently, carrying backpacks and hope. On the edge of Gracias, we found a dirt road, turned onto it, the sun just peeking over the mountains to the east. Shortly we came to a river and crossed it over a bridge. The road began to climb and pack straps began to moisten with sweat. Suddenly from behind us approached a pickup. We stepped off the road and extended our arms in the direction of La Esperanza.
The pickup stopped and we talked. Luck had arrived, as the two Ladinos in the truck were traveling medicine salesmen bound for La Esperanza. We climbed in back and the little white pickup became our private carriage. Once underway and comfortably resting against our packs, we laughed that one medicine man had promised us good luck and that two medicine men had arrived to deliver it.
The road climbed into and through splendid green rugged mountains covered with pine forests and patchwork pastures reminiscent of Ecuador. In the arroyos were pits dug to excavate volcanic clay and wooden forms to mold the clay and round ovens to bake the clay into red roofing tiles. We passed through Indian villages composed of brown adobe huts and red roofs. The medicine men stopped at every pulperia and sold some of their goods. Not a single other vehicle appeared on the road.
Late in the afternoon we bumped into La Esperanza, the highest town in Honduras. The Gringa was dressed appropriately, wearing a yellow embroidered shirt from La Esperanza, Ecuador. We found a room in a dark, dank pensión and then walked about the small town before retiring for bed.
The following morning we toured the dirty, crowded market. We saw the best produce we had seen in all of Honduras. Tiny Lenca Indians dressed in bright satin dresses and wearing bridal veils over their heads provided color for an authentic Indian market. We bought a bateada de madera, a wooden bread kneading trough made of smooth shiny red wood called royal cedar.
At middle morning, we carried our packs to the bus lot and loaded them aboard a clean bus bound for San Pedro Sula. We crept through the crowded narrow dirt streets of La Esperanza and came to a paved highway and gained speed. Occasionally we would slow for groups of people standing beside the highway, and the ayudante would open the door and bark “Ese Peh Ese, Pedro, Pedro.” The blacktop eventually merged with the main Honduran highway connecting Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula and we turned north. For the first time in over a month, we again came beside picturesque Lago Yojoa. Long strings of bass hung for sale beside the road. Pineapple fields and fruit stands bordered the pavement for kilometers.
Late in the afternoon we clattered into San Pedro Sewage. We entered through the filthy slums along the railroad tracks. Between squatters’ shacks, we pulled into a littered vacant lot and the passengers climbed out of the bus. We flagged down a battered taxi and began to drive through crowded streets. The air was filled with diesel exhaust and the stench of ripening sewage.
The driver pointed to a group of small boys and warned us about them. He said that at night such boys gang up carrying machetes and surround adults, demanding the victim disrobe and allow the boys to loot the clothing and any valuables. We asked if they were orphans and the driver replied that some were, but that many were disintigrados, disintegrated ones, meaning they were from broken homes.
We passed beside pool rooms and hair salons and vendors on street corners selling merchandise from carts. All shops of any size kept their doors locked even while open during business hours. These shops were guarded by armed security men, and shoppers had to push a bell before being granted access inside. Because of the lack of tillable land in Honduras, the only jobs are in the city, and thousands of squatters come each year to try their luck in San Pedro Sula. This has resulted in an outbreak of crime and violence, with the newcomers competing for those scarce resources sought by everyone.
Finally the taxi found our destination and we unloaded ourselves and the packs. Off the baking pavement, we stepped into a familiar lobby. We had returned to the Hotel Terrazas. Our journey into the Occidente of Honduras was complete. We had come full circle.
Damp darkness covered sweltering San Pedro Sula. Earlier in the evening, we had found a marimba band playing in the plaza and we had enjoyed the music and the dancers. Now we sat in the restaurant at Hotel Terraza. Our last Port Royal beers stood on the table, dripping sweat. Lemonade glasses also sweat. Upstairs our backpacks rested against the wall. We munched on fried potatoes. The coming day we would leave Central America. Almost six weeks had passed since we had first landed at San Salvador. The journey had painted many images and we reflected upon them.
The lack of chiles caused us to laugh. We had expected spicy food because of the Caribbean coast. In Honduras, as well as El Salvador, the bottle of red vinegar called hot sauce standing on the table represents chile. For those desiring fresh chile, all we had found were jalapeños and gordas. The few exceptions were in La Mosquitia and Roatán, where habaneros were sometimes available. These chiles had been called cabro, mutton and bull nose peppers. Chile pequín are available in Honduras during season and these are called chilpepes and chiltutos. Chile tepín is what we had found in Gracias, there called chile panicito. It was clear to us that Hondurans do not seek spicy food.
We did not laugh, however, at the lack of good bananas in Honduras. The ones for sale to the locals are poor in quality and freshness. Clearly, the bananas for which Honduras is famous are all exported. Lack of bananas is a barometer of the food situation in Honduras. Beans are imported from Canada and rice from Indonesia. Honduras cannot feed herself.
Honduras has been raped by the Gringos. She is a perfect example of economic imperialism. The best agricultural land belongs to the Gringo fruit companies, obtained by paying bribes to Generals. This means that the Gringos have seized the land. Food is being imported because there is no land available upon which to grow crops for local consumption. Gringo land is used to grow crops to export to foreign consumers for the profit of foreign companies. The owner of the coffee finca in Gracias remarked that the only way for Honduras to feed herself is to kill United Fruit Company.
When Hondurans clear land by slash and burn methods, Western environmentalists complain about deforestation. However, Hondurans are forced to cut their forests because foreigners own most of the agricultural land and Hondurans are seeking a way to feed themselves.
Merchandise in Honduras comes from the Gringos. It is low-end in quality. There are also many Gringo franchise businesses in Honduras. Pizza Hut, Wendy’s and Burger King are obvious. Prices are equivalent to those in the USA. Prices are based on the value of the dollar. The local currency floats at the will of the Gringos who control the Honduran banks through their investments. Gringos have restricted, and thereby control, the economic market of Honduras.
Although Hondurans are slaves to the USA economy, opposition and political awareness seem dormant. The graffiti remarking “Me da miedo la tranquilidad de Honduras” is an example. The tranquillity in Honduras makes me afraid.
The children observed the poor social conditions of Central America through their exposure to many crippled and maimed people, the abundance of pregnant mothers, the horde of drunks in the gutter and the filth and litter of the countries. The children remarked how rich and clean and progressive is Mexico. The young travelers could not believe that people would accept such trash as a way of life. However, most astounding to us all, were the number of amputees and deformities. Mostly hands and arms were missing, but so were many legs. We found this condition to be so prevalent that we concluded that it must be due to doctors incapable to curing and thereby resorting to cutting.
It is not surprising that Hondurans do not smile. Public signs try to promote smiling by claiming it is good breeding to smile. There is little music to smile by. Buses displayed radios and tape decks, but never played them. Music in Honduras is imported from elsewhere. There is no native music. Even the marimba comes from Guatemala. The exception to this is on the Caribbean coast in the predominantly black community.
We reflected about any hardships we had suffered. There was a long pause, as none could be recollected. We reminded the children about them saying the Hotel Rick in long ago La Libertad had been unsuitable. They laughed and confessed that it had been pretty good. We inquired about the mosquitoes and jejenes. They remarked that these small annoyances had actually added to the adventure and should properly be viewed as a device for distinguishing between those who desire comfort and those who seek the end of the road.
Although no hardships could be recollected, the children could recall pain. This had always occurred upon saying good-by. They complained that never had they said good-by so many times.
We reflected on what the children had learned. Mostly they had learned to travel. This meant that they had learned responsibility and caution. Each had learned to be constantly aware of what is around you, to keep an eye out behind you, to walk not too close to bus windows, to be careful of reaching hands, to be careful of dirty forks, to not lean against walls or touch wall corners, to beware of glasses and to use the bottle with a straw. Each had seen that hands quickly become dirty and each recognized the need to keep hands away from mouth and eyes. Each had learned that cuts and scrapes infect easily because everything is so dirty. They had learned to travel as a team, to help watch for danger, to help guard the perimeter, to help carry, to help unload, to take care of personal things, to be responsible, to be organized so that nothing is forgotten so as to burden the others, to check the room before leaving, to secure property at all times.
The children also developed skills. They became experts at flagging down a bus or hitching a ride in the backcountry. They perfected the skill of moving with grace under the weight of a pack. They advanced the art of tossing a pack onto a truck. They developed the awareness to watch for someone removing your pack from the bus when it stops to unload or load a passenger. They learned to accept that which they had in the moment and not to complain for what they presumed to lack. They discovered the ease of movement which was produced by speaking Spanish.
Confidence had soared as the young travelers developed these skills and awareness. The great road had taken the young and delivered the wise.
The taxi driver and the children loaded our worn and road polished backpacks into the rear of the station wagon. As we crept through San Pedro Sula, around us rushed noisy, dirty, crowded city street life. After we turned onto the highway, quietness arrived, and we drove silently toward the airport, staring off at the green mountains. Change blew through the open windows.
Inside the small hot airport we checked out of Honduras, the children receiving a fourth stamp in their passports. As we sat in the lobby awaiting the flight, we remarked that while we were officially out of Honduras, we were not officially anywhere else yet. We were in limbo. Nowhere. Only when we reached El Norte would we receive the fifth and final stamp in the passport and be officially anywhere again. This realization prompted pause in the children.
Then came the moment of departure. Under a blazing sun, we walked out onto the runway and climbed a steel stairway into the suddenly cold cabin of our carriage. Soft music purred from speakers. Once all passengers were seated and settled, a sterile American voice welcomed us aboard and promised us a safe and pleasant journey. We looked out the window as the carriage slowly turned and rolled toward the end of the pavement and then turned again. Mirage shimmered and beckoned over the hot asphalt. Then came a sudden lurch forward and we were thrust back against our seats as the carriage accelerated. Trees rushed by the window. And the sleek metallic white jet raced down the runway and lifted up, climbing into the tropical sky, carrying us over coffee plantations and banana forests and pineapple fields and Caribbean reefs, and we looked down onto where we had been, and we smiled hello to who we had become.
The hum of the jet engines seemed as om during a sitting. Everyone was still. Some sat with eyes half closed and hands clasped gently in laps. Reflection sat with us. She smiled and nodded knowingly, pleased with what she saw. None of us was the same person that had left El Norte what seemed so long ago. Two youths had become overland travelers. Two elders had become successful teachers. All were tan, all were harder, all sported healing bug bites, some were older and some younger, and all wore the aura that can only be gifted by the great road.
In the overhead bin of the cabin rested four hats. Each glowed with its own magic. Each fit but one head. The right to wear the hats could be claimed only by those who had walked under them. The feathers and skins and scales adorning the hats had not been bought. The decorations had come from the journey, and they were personal and natural, and they gleamed with the joy of experience. The colorful bands around the hats had not been bought, they had come from an exchange of cultures, the whisper of oneness that is shared around a cook fire. The faint scent of honeysuckle carried by the hats had not been bought, it had been placed there by magic. The sweat ring around the crown and the smudges on the brim had not been bought. These markings had been earned.
Money cannot acquire such hats. Money can only prevent them. Only time allows for hats such as these. So time is worth more than money. To buy time is the only value of money.
The hats in the overhead bin had been crafted by adventure and could only be worn by those who had traveled the road, those who had stood in red mud and thrown backpacks up onto the top of a rusty bus, those who had sat in stick huts and breathed the copál smoke of the gods, those who had hummed to the beat of a tuk-tuk, those who had listened to the monkeys howl in the tropical night, those who had been squeezed against old Mayas and received their fleas, those who had touched a painted cheek while a painted finger felt blond hair, those who had slept wet on a dirty floor, those who had strolled dark deserted cobblestone streets, those who had swam under an orchid draped waterfall, those who had chased the rainbow into the green mountains.
Two young men sat still in the cabin. They imagined they were going home, but they could never go home. They were different now. They would find that their track pointed toward a destination distinct from that of their peers. They would never be able to stay in a single place very long. Now they were one of the few, cursed and blessed. They would find that the distinction of being one of the few is not always pleasant. Oftentimes it would be demanding. It would isolate them. For they would harbor peerless ideals, seldom accepted by the herd, and always they would hear the music beckoning to them from across the way. And they would be powerless to resist.
Now tonight the lights is lit. We “member who we was and we know who we is and where we comes from. We know ‘cause of the tell. The tell of us all. An’ tomorrow we’ll tell the newborn. We was the ones got the luck. An’ we seen things beyond our wildest.
Now we gotta travel that track. It ain’t no easy one. ‘Cause nobody knows where it’s gonna go. Just follow the road. An’ you gotta listen and ‘member. An’ keep on lookin’ for the lights.
This Tell was recorded in my travel journal as it happened. During my preparation for the presentation herein, as a matter of curiosity to learn what might have changed, I searched the Internet for Palacios. There I found that Don Felix had completed his hotel and that it was a beauty. Below are photos of Don Felix’s dream come true.
Paco El grande
I just finished the Miskito Coast and it was amazing. You and the family exploring in the 80’s where no one would dare to go for even for a visit. The area you covered was very scary. And my wife and I spent many a day flying in and driving to God know where. This continued in Mexico until we were almost kidnapped outside of La Paz. Played hide and seek for several hours .
Then I spent time with my two younger kids in Haiti back in 2007. I took them and other students through the small settlements where I saw the sickest of the sick. Most I could not help but i did give the local care takers advice on what the diagnosis was and the time line to the final outcome.
Before this I had lived in the Dominican Republic for 3 years in mid 80’s. Exploring the DR on my motorcycle that ranged for coast to coast from Santa Domingo to Puerto Plata, Santiago and the Haitian boarder. I loved the adventure dodging trantulas, drinking beer every few miles and bar hopping at night. My home was in Santa Domingo across from the US Marine Corps barracks next to the US Embassy. My cook and house keeper would make drinks and food for me every evening when I came home. She bought coconuts and would drain the milk into the ice trays and freeze them. Then open a bottle of rum and blend the coconut milk and rum into a knock out drink.
So Paco your teaching of Juanito took hold in many ways including my ability to be fearless as your are and this teaching saved many lives in Nam and back in the USA. I will never forget you and I just hope one day I can sit with you one more time and talk.