Living in Honduras or Guatemala as a foreigner is sometimes hard, mostly fun and never boring. This Blog is about more than just the oddities of my years in the not-so tranquil, cobble-stoned town of Copán Ruinas and, more recently, Antigua Guatemala. Hence Serendipity, the gift of finding without seeking…

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Tourism for Dummies

It’s a good thing I have very little to do with tourists, because I’m way too undiplomatic, impatient and untactful to deal with them. Serve with a smile is definitely not my motto and I greatly admire all those tour guides who travel around with a herd of tourists for weeks on end without strangling one or two. At the same time I find them fascinating, tourists, especially if they travel in groups. As different as the people might be, as intelligently as the are individually and whatever the place they come from, there always seems to be the same psychological profile you can apply on each group. Completely politically incorrect and stereotypical, but here we go:
The Whiner: There’s always a big whiner in each group. The one that complains about the leg space in the bus; the food that is too spicy, too cold or too salty. Breakfast is either too early or too late and there’s always something wrong with the weather. The rest of the group initially listens and sympathetically nod their heads, but start to avoid the Whiner after a day or two.
The Know-It-All: The Know-It-All has worked hard to prepare for the trip: he or she knows all the facts, from the population of each country to its national gross product. The Know-It-All travels with a small library of guide books and often contradicts the tour guide when he says something a little different from the Lonely Planet. It is not uncommon for the Know-It-All to completely miss rare encounters and opportunities, because of course the Know-It-All has his head in the guide book when the quetzal bird flies. The Know-It-All is oftentimes disappointed that reality does not coincide with what the Guide Bible has to say.
The Know-It-Better: is not as prepared as the Know-It-All but tends to do the opposite of what the tour guide tells him to do. If the guide warns not to go to a specific area of town, you can be sure to find the Know-It-Better there. If the guide tells him to leave valuables at the hotel and not eat on the street, the Know-It-Better does exactly the opposite. It is no surprise the Know-It-Better is often the victim of robbery or food poisoning. That does occasionally shut him up.
Sue-You: Usually a middle-aged woman with a tendency to show that you can’t fool her and if you do, she’ll sue you. She daily threatens the guide (“If your company hears about you leaving us alone for five minutes!), the bus driver (“You better slow down, or else!”), the kids on the street (“I’ll tell your mother you’re here out on the street bothering innocent tourists!”), fellow travellers (“I have a right to have a room with a view too!”). Sue-You’s email address is immediately blocked by the rest of the group as soon as the trip is over and she is of course never invited to any reunion.
The Jolly Good Fellow: Everybody’s best friend, the Jolly Good Fellow is always in an annoyingly good mood, always ready to crack a joke and a big fan of practical jokes, especially of rather infantile ones such as fart cushions. Always in for a party and one last beer, his fellow travellers soon start feigning headaches when Jolly walks into the room.
Stingy: There’s always one person, man or woman, who counts and recounts every penny and constantly complains about the exchange rate. Stingy tips when the others are around, but has been seen to go back to tables to take away the tip again. When a bill needs to be paid for a group meal, she always tries to pay less than her share and justifies it that she drank “only half a glass of wine”.
Sorry: This man or woman attracts all the bad luck in the world but wouldn’t be able to live without it. Bad luck has become his meaning of life and he constantly apologizes for it and for everything else too, for that matter. Soft spoken with watery eyes, Sorry goes on for ever and ever. At first people around him do feel sorry for him, but soon they start avoiding his eyes and quickly after they try to avoid him all together.
The Leader of the Pack: Although guided by a professional, the Leader, often an energetic woman in her mid thirties, can do it all and just as well, if not better. The Leader regularly corrects the tour guide and it is known to have happened that the tour guide arrived at breakfast to find his group already gone. The Leader does not really know it better, but her strong leadership skills assure her a steady group of followers who just, well, follow her wherever she goes.
The Rebel: The trip was definitely not the Rebel’s idea but he was obliged to accompany a parent or spouse. The Rebel would have preferred to stay home and watch soccer. The Rebel is not interested in nature, culture or anythingelse, but has a great gift for finding bars that sell cheap beers in every town they visit.
The Pervert: Otherwise know as Peeping Tom, this is a guy you really want to steer away from. The tour guide has a hard time keeping him away from cute indigenous little girls selling on the streets.
Single: Undoubtly a woman, Single came on this trip with just one goal: to score. Unfortunately, most of the fellow travellers are married and worse, travelling with their spouses, which makes the chance of an affair during the trip almost nil. Single is thus obliged to find pleasure elsewhere, but a good number of waiters, bus drivers and local guides are usually willing to satisfy her.

And that’s why I don’t travel in groups…

I love Gringos!


Copán Ruinas is a famous tourist destination and thus frequently visited by people from all over the world although by some nationalities more than others. Besides tourists from Honduras and other parts of Central America, it’s probably mostly Americans who come through town. Being Dutch, I arrived here thirteen years ago with a typical European aversion against everything American, but after meeting so many I have to confess they’re not the worst tourists by far. Here my own personal top – 3 (and not necessarily in this order):
1: Israelis. You don’t see them too often, but if they’re in town, you’ll know it. They complain about everything, are stingy and often rude. I have nothing against Israelis in general and maybe it’s just the Israelis that visit Honduras that behave in obnoxious ways, but that’s how I feel about it. Thank goodness they don’t pick Copán Ruinas as a destination that often.
2: The Spanish. Again, 99.5% of the Spanish probably belong to the nicest people of the world, but the ones of that 0.5% that visit Copán could stay home for all I care. Besides their horrible dress code (they seem to favour gaudy wide sweat pants) they have this presumptuous arrogance for being European over American and speaking Spanish over any other language in the world. Since they do speak the same language as people in Honduras (well, sort of) they think they can’t be cheated and make sure as hell they won’t. They continuously haggle in a country where haggling is not common and are stingier than the stingiest Dutchmen.
3. The Dutch. What’s the matter with my fellow countrymen and women? When they go camping in France of hiking in the Ardennes, they just pack some comfortable clothes and that’s it. When the travel to Central America they make sure to wear a complete safari attire: shirts of lightweight-dry-quickly-no-sweat fabric; shoes meant to be comfortable but that fail their exam in appeal and oh yes, always those zip-off pants. Whenever I’m back in Holland for a visit I look out for signs that fashion has changed in my absence, but no, the khaki or army green safari outfit is solely used for travelling in the Tropics. Fine. It doesn’t bother me and it can lead to hysterically funny situations when groups of Dutchies visit some site and collectively decide to zip off their pants and thus become an instant attraction. Good, may the locals have some fun too.
The Dutch are famous for being stingy, but that is not what I think sets them apart so much (many other nationalities are stingy too, see point 1). Very typically Dutch is for them to completely ignore other Dutch tourists (except when they travel in packs, which they often do), whereas people from other countries tend to join tables to spend a jolly night together, because what a coincidence, they only live two states away from each other. Somehow the Dutch like to have this feeling they’re the first Dutch ever to set foot on a spot and don’t like to be confronted with countrymen who beat them to it. But worse than everything else is that the Dutch have an opinion about EVERYTHING. They can’t just sit, shut up and enjoy, no, everything has to be compared with something else and than be labelled and put in a box.
“I like the food here, but the food in that Korean restaurant where were last year was much better.”
“The ruins are okay here, but nothing compared to Machu Picchu.” (This often stated before they visit the ruins!)
“That waitress is not very friendly.” (Actually she is, but she just got a phone call that her brother’s best friend’s chicken was run over, for all I know!).
The Dutch know everything better because they are prepared, of course, because they read the guidebook, of course. Dear countrymen and women, throw away that book, look around and start enjoying what’s there in stead of complaining about what’s not!

No, give me the Americans: no nonsense, friendly and willing to pay the price whatever something costs. They have fun (admittedly loudly, every once in a while), they don’t complain too much and seem to thoroughly enjoy the short vacation periods they have. The Canadians are not too bad either, but they have this strange tendency to stick a Canadian flag on all their possessions in order not to be confused for an American. As if that matters. For the Hondurans we’re all Gringos…

The FBI, CIA and Secret Service in Copán Ruinas

The CIA, Mossad and other international secret services really have very extended payrolls and a great deal of their employees seem to choose Copán Ruinas as a vacation or retirement destination. I have met many of them.
Years ago there was a Belgian guy who worked for the Mossad and generously treated all his new friends in Copán to beers and exciting stories about him freeing the world of evil. The only problem was that he had no cash, just a credit card and in those days it was cash only. No problem, he would go to the bank the day after but of course there was always a minor problem preventing him from getting his money. He promised the owner of the hotel he was staying at that he would pay “mañana”, and the owner said that was fine as long as he would allow him to “kindly” keep his passport in the safe for him. A few days later the Belgian guy was gone and left behind his passport and many open bar bills. We never saw him again until a few months later his face (behind bars!) appeared in the news paper. The police had locked up an undocumented Belgian (“His passport was with friends in Copán…) who had been messing around with the mayor’s daughter, and well, that was the wrong man’s daughter to mess around with. As far as we know the Mossad never came to smooth things over. Not that we would know if they did…
The CIA or FBI agents usually confess their important position within the agency ten minutes and a few beers after you meet them in a bar. The announcement is always introduced by the sentence: “You know, I shouldn’t tell you this, but actually I’m a FBI/CIA /SSA agent…” These agents are usually middle-aged, big bellied and with red noses that imply a tendency to drink too much too often. But of course, who wouldn’t with such a stressful job. If you ask them what they’re doing in Copán, they tell you they can’t say anything about it, because, well, it is a secret… But they always do assure you that if there is any problem, they’ll be the guy to help you out. Sigh. How relieved I feel to be backed up by a bunch of middle-aged, potbellied agents! But no, sorry, I won’t sleep with you. Real-Life secret agents are not my thing. I rather go to bed with a espionage thriller in which the agents never give away their true identity to complete strangers. But then again, they’re usually very good looking and don’t need their job to talk women into their beds. But that, of course, is just fiction…

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Dogs found and lost


The pool hall up the road had finally turned off their rancheras or porn movie or whatever the guys were up too, so the night was as quiet as night in Copán can be: the soft murmuring of the creek below my house, an orchestra of crickets, a dog barking in the distance and a mistaken rooster much closer by. So it wasn’t this loud but normal silence that woke me up at two in the morning. It was the soft crying of an animal that sounded to be in distress. I got up, listened harder next to the window, as if that small distance from my bed made any difference, but still, the whimpering continued somewhere below my window in the overgrown but otherwise empty yard next to my house. I counted my three cats on my bed, my two dogs on their own, but they were all accounted for. I knew I would never be able to go back to sleep again with a crying animal out there, so with a sense o annoyance and concern, I put on a pair of pants, found a flashlight and went out. I carefully stepped through the knee-high grass, making my way downward to some sort of a ditch where the crying became louder. When I got closer by I wondered whether this was such a good idea. I had no idea what I was going to find. It sounded like a puppy, but it might as well have been a possum. Or a mountain lion for all I knew! Not that that seemed very realistic, but then again, at two in the morning all by myself in an empty lot, armed with nothing more than a flashlight, I tend to be less realistic. And even if it was just a puppy, how was I going to be sure it wouldn’t attack me? I finally located the whimpering and started walking around it in circles, getting closer to the source of the sound every time. I don’t know why, but it seemed a very sensible and strategic thing to do. And there it was: a tiny puppy, no more than six weeks old for the look of it. I started talking to it and how Horse Whisperer-like, the puppy stopped crying. It let me touch it and even pick it up. I carried it up to my house and examined the animal outside my door, thinking it wasn’t up yet for a confrontation with my own big dogs. The puppy, male, was filthy and not taken care of. When I put him down I realised he had hurt his leg and couldn’t even stand up. I put him in a makeshift bed and tried to give him some food, but he either didn’t like Dogui dog food, or, more likely, had no clue what it was. But he did lick some milk from my finger. I then left the puppy in his new bed and went back to mine. I’d figure out what to do with him the next morning if he hadn’t died by then.
The next morning, the puppy was still very much alive, although quite overwhelmed by my whole pet family that was anxious to meet him. I scooped up the puppy and went to the neighbours to ask if the puppy was theirs by any chance. It wasn’t. And as it happened, the puppy they had, had actually died that morning so it got the typical funeral arrangements: the ninety year old abuelito of the house tied a piece of string to one leg of the dead animal and dragged if over the ground, all the way around my house, and left it near the creek for the vultures to eat it.
Anyway, I had tons of things to do that day, so after some more milk, I left the puppy in my garden and went to town. I had walked only a few blocks when I saw what I thought was another puppy almost getting run over by a car. Up closer I saw it wasn’t a puppy but a Jack Russell terrier, one that looked an awful lot like Domingo, owned by a woman in town I knew. I called out his name and it was indeed Domingo, unless other Jack Russell terriers get frantic too when they hear “Domingo”. Domingo happily followed me and since I was on my way downtown anyway, I figured I’d drop him off at home. However, there was nobody at his home so he then followed me to the Via Via restaurant where I planned to have a cup of coffee. Quietly. Not so much, because Domingo insisted on sitting on my lap and eating the magazine I was reading. I tried to call his owner, but the battery of my phone was dead. Twenty or so not-so-relaxing minutes later (the coffee was mostly spilled on my pants and the magazine basically gone to shreds) I decided to give up and pass by Domingo’s owner’s house one more time. Then I got lucky… As soon as I stepped out the restaurant, I ran into one of Domingo’s co-owners (not really, but the family stats are way to complicated to get into here) and I happily handed him over to Leonel who didn’t seemed to be worried at all about little Domingo wandering the dangerous streets of Copán all by himself. Okay, mission accomplished, I went to my office.
After a few hours of work I crossed the street to the souvenir store where they also make photocopies, which was what I needed at the time. I was just paying my bill when little Domingo casually walked into the store. He sniffed at some hand made postcards on a low shelf and decided he liked them, because he was about to lift his leg and mark them as his. “No!” I yelled, and then quickly made it for the backdoor and slipped back into my office. I had had more than enough of Domingo for one day.
A few hours later I finished my work and called it a day, thinking on my way home what to do with the mystery puppy. I couldn’t imagine where it had come from or why it ended up below my window. I decided that there was no way I was going to keep the dog, but I would see what I could do to make him better which didn’t seem easy since the puppy couldn’t even stand on it’s own legs. But when I got home, the puppy was gone. It had disappeared as mysteriously as it had arrived in my yard. I couldn’t help but feeling relieved…

Auto-interview


Q: So Carin, just for introductions, tell me a bit about yourself.
A: Well, for starters, I normally really don’t do interviews. Never.
Q: Oh? Why not?
A: That’s personal.
Q: So why this interview, then?
A: Uh… Because you said that there would be a compensation available? Right? This is off the records, right?
Q: Of course it is. About a compensation, well, uh, yes, I actually am authorized to reimburse you your travel expenses.
A: Travel expenses? But where here in my living room!
Q: Well that saves us some expenses then, doesn’t it?
A: It also saves us time and trouble! This is it, no more questions!
Q: Oh, come on, just a few more? Now that I’m here anyway?
A: That’s a question. Two, actually. I said no.
Q: Oh. But that means I came all the way down here for nothing!
A: But you’ll get your travel expenses reimbursed. And a “compensation”, right?
Q: No, not if I don’t deliver this interview.
A: Oh, well.
Q: Oh come on, help me out here, a fellow artist and wanna-be writer, just like yourself.
A: That’ so?
Q: You tell me!?
A: Uh, no. I won’t.
Q: Okay, listen. What if I just tell you what information I have about you and you just say “yes” or “no”, depending whether you agree or not. Deal?
A: (Silence). Okay. Deal. Yes.
Q: Right. Let’s get started. So: you’re originally from Amsterdam, Holland, and you have been living in Honduras since 1997.
A: Yes.
Q: You’re an artist. Mostly painting, right?
A: Yes.
Q: And if I’m correct, you’re also the director of Arte Acción Copán Ruinas, an NGO that organizes cultural activities for children here in Copán.
A: That’s right. I mean: yes.
Q: So why did you start this Blog?
A: That’s not a yes or no question.
Q: Correct, it isn’t. Let me see. Uh, I see that you mostly write in English.
A: Yes.
Q: Why not in your mother tongue Dutch?
A: Because I don’t have Dutch spelling control on my computer. Damn it, that’s not a yes/no question!
Q: Yes it is!
A: No it isn’t!
Q: Is too!
A: You know what, this interview is over.
Q: No!
A: Yes!
Q: No!
A: Yes!