Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Honduras

Tuk-tuks on the beach of Isla del Tigre.
The second of the ‘CA-4’, which also includes Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala, was just a short stop on the way up the continent but, through some interesting encounters, provided an insight into the lives of the people there. It also showed just how friendly Hondurans are, if our experiences with just a few people are anything to go by.

Our first impression was not that different from Nicaragua: old US school buses – converted for public use by rubbing out the word ‘school’ and fitting overly loud speakers – ferried us along like caged chickens (which is why they’re known as ‘chicken’ buses) from the border to San Lorenzo, a dusty crossroads town only inhabited by taxi drivers and people changing buses. It was useless of us to ask the waiting taxi drivers for information about buses; their snide remarks and cocky smiles should not be taken as indicative of Hondurans as a whole: we all know that taxi drivers are a separate breed entirely. (One man in Colombia once told me, “We say that when a whore gives birth, the child is a taxi driver!”)

But later we got into a taxi and had an altogether different encounter. The driver spoke to us of his time in the US, how he left his family, made his way up to Mexico and walked across the Arizona desert in order to work in the states illegally. His openness took as by surprise. As he talked, I understood his reasons entirely: the disparity in pay and standards of living between the two countries is shocking. He didn’t do it out of greed or jealousy, but in order to feed his family. Imagine how hard it would be to leave your family and take that risk. It isn’t easy and it certainly isn’t selfish.

Fortunately there were plenty of buses heading south to Coyolito, from where we persuaded a boatman to ferry us across the by-now dark water to the Isla del Tigre, a small volcanic island off the Pacific coast. We picked our way through the stray dogs to a hotel run by an incredibly friendly lady who fed us copious amounts of fish and Imperial, the best beer of Central America so far. Tuk-tuk drivers congregated on the beach just outside our balcony, a sight that gave me pause to wonder if I was actually in Asia. But no, they must just be easier to carry over by boat than normal cars.

Grilled fish: the perfect island dinner. (Accompanied by plantains, the usual in Latin America!)
The next day we toured the island with a mission: to solve our self-created problem of not having enough money. Although we had some dollars that we managed to change in a Coca-Cola warehouse (that really is all they had there, piles and piles of the stuff), we were still short of cash. We wandered the quiet, baking streets of Amapala, the main town, along the promenade where dozens of benches remained empty due to the intense sun. Kids played in the water, overshadowed by Volcán El Tigre, the island’s centrepiece and raison d'être. (The US Drug Enforcement Agency actually had a base on top of it, but it’s now deserted.) Finally, we found a hotel for lunch and paid by credit card. Problem solved. We swam in the warm Pacific waters as the sun sank and a full moon rose to set the ripples a-glimmering. We rounded off the day with more grilled fish.

Moon-set over the Pacific, from Isla del Tigre.
Wherever one goes in Central America the Pacific coast, despite the continent’s narrowness, has a very different vibe as compared to the Caribbean (Atlantic) side. On the east the atmosphere is a very African, with people, music and food that reflects a history steeped in slavery. On the west coast, however, the air may be relaxed, but the people tend to be much more European and indigenous. Things may be more geared towards tourism on the Caribbean, whereas the people seem happier just to maintain their traditions and sense of pride on the Pacific. This is not to say that tourism isn’t moving in: there are plans to bring cruise ships to Isla del Tigre. I just hope they put a bank there first.

The quiet, hot streets of Amapala, Isla del Tigre.
We took a boat and a bus back up to San Lorenzo at the beginning of another long day of transport to the El Salvador border at El Amatillo. In San Lorenzo we had another wonderful meeting. We sat down at a tiny roadside café run by a little old lady. She sat there fanning us with a hat, worried that we were too hot, and asked us everything she could think of about our countries (mostly the weather). She was so happy to have us there, so intent on making us feel welcome and loved. As we left the country we wondered how she has maintained that faith in humanity and love of strangers. Perhaps it’s the lack of tourists that keeps her fascinated, or perhaps she knows something about the simplicity of life that we forget. Whatever it is, I hope it stays that way.

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