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…
Thursday, February 14, 2013
Copán: a Love Story
I first visited Copán Ruinas in
1994, during a short trip while I was based in Antigua Guatemala, studying Spanish. I spent
only a few days in town, but really liked the place and thought how lovely it
would be to go back there, somewhere in the future when I’d have more time on
That opportunity came a few years
later when Dutch friends of mine asked me to take care of their restaurant in
Copán for two months, while they went back to Holland. At that time I studied Latin American
literature, without a scholarship, so I could no longer afford the regular
trips I used to make during previous years when I had a short but lucrative
career in fashion design. But now I had a chance to go back with room and board
accounted for, so I bought a ticket and made my way back to that small town in
the western mountains of Honduras.
It didn’t take long before I was
totally, head over heels in love. With Copán.
Why? That is as hard to explain as
why you fall in love with a person at first sight. But the symptoms were all
the same: butterflies in my stomach, an eagerness to get out of bed every
morning in order to face yet another day in paradise and a reluctance to go to
bed at night because I didn’t want to miss a second of my stay.
I was overwhelmed with this magical
place and its cosmopolitan ambience while at the same time so authentically
rural. The people were so friendly, the climate so becoming. The few bars and
restaurants in town were not as hip as the ones in sizzling Amsterdam, but great places nonetheless where
I met an endless stream of interesting and entertaining people. The food supply
was less variable than I was used too, but exotic in my eyes, and thus
delicious. I found the Maya Chortí people so beautiful, so authentic, so quiet
and reserved. They gave a sense of mystery to the place. The people were taking
life at a slower space and it all seemed so right, so down to earth, so
perfect. It was all so incredibly far removed from the life I was used to, the
typical running around and busy, busy, busy, always. To have nature so close
around me made me feel humble and rich at the same time. I didn’t need to own
acres of land as long as I could roam around for free over the mountain trails,
which I did (and do) every day. I learned to take my time, to wonder and
appreciate. I felt like I had come home, finally, after a long, long way on the
road of life.
Two months turned into a year. One
year turned into many more.
In the beginning every small
cultural difference delighted me. I quickly picked up gestures and bad
language. In no time I was pointing with my lips instead of using my hand, I
mastered the little twitch in the corner of my mouth that says ”hello, how are
you, I’m fine, thank you” and I even counted on my fingers, starting with my
pinky. I was intrigued to learn how to do my laundry at a pila, a big cement sink which serves as a water reservoir since the
water supplies are unreliable. I learned how prepare and eat frijoles and tortillas and can’t imagine I’ll be ever be able to live without baleadas. I even got used to the power
outages and to throwing toilet paper in a basket instead of the toilet. The
people I met instantly became best friends. They were so gracious, so welcoming.
I spent night after night partying, just hanging around and drinking far too
much beer. My first two years in paradise were one long vacation.
I don’t know exactly when and even
less how it changed, but it did. Was
it me, this place, or my relationship with it? Maybe it was like any love
affair: at first everything is new and exciting. Once that first stage is over,
it all depends on how much mutual respect is left. And even if there’s not a
grain of respect or love left, people often stick together for years, for the
rest of their lives, just because they’re so used to each other.
I guess it is the beginning of the
end when that what you first found charming, starts to annoy the hell out of
you. People’s relaxedness becomes tardiness. Elaborate answers to please you
become lies. A helping hand turns into someone who wants to take advantage of
you. Where before you laughed when a Honduran started building a house by
putting up the roof first instead of laying the foundation, now you roll your
eyes and shake your head in disgust. You hear yourself say how hard it is to
get a trustworthy cleaning lady and it somewhere stirs a memory of a heated
discussion years ago about how wrong and how “colonial” it is to talk about how
difficult it is to get good personnel. The food supply has improved over the
years that what’s not available become more important than that what’s at hand.
Before, you took a trip to the big city in the one and only chicken bus and you
considered it an adventure. Now a trip out of town becomes an escape…
And the people: you realize they
never really were your best friends: they were as long as you paid for the
beers. But when you had a problem, either with them or one of their numerous
family members, their friendship turned into chillness. They will never
confront you, but every warmth and hospitality is gone. So what you do is you
shut yourself up in your own place and pretend to live in your own world far
away from Honduras.
You can’t go back home; you won’t be able to adapt anymore. You’re too used to
the freedom money can buy, since even the poorest westerner here is richer than
a campesino. You don’t want to live in
a world without hired help to do the laundry or the garden. You don’t want to
be bothered with all kinds of taxes or being obliged by law to scoop up your
dogs disposals. You hate the cold, the grey of your home country’s long
winters. So there is no choice. You stay where you are and you create your own
private state in the amidst of Honduras.
You finally caught that gringo
disease. It’s called bitterness.
I’ve had many “I hate Honduras”
days. But I still stuck around. And things slowly moved around again.
I’ve fallen head over heels in love before only to fall out of love
again and wonder what the heck you ever saw in that person. Tremendous love can
easily turn into deep disgust and even hate. If there’s no love left, you
better get the hell out of there. But that is not what happened with me and
I’ve lived in Copán for sixteen years now, and in more than one way, it
is the love of my life. We have shared so much and Copán has been as good for
me as it has been bad. I feel a tremendous love and respect for this place, its
people and its history. It is a place as no other and it will always be in my
However, I have decided to leave Copán. Not any time soon, nor am I
leaving Copán for another love in my life. I just feel it’s time to move on. I
feel good here, but it has become too comfortable, although hardly ever easy.
But the world is bigger than Copán and I feel I’m not done exploring yet.
So I have no idea where I’ll end up, much less when. But wherever I’ll
be, whatever I’ll do, there is no doubt in my mind that I’ll always think of
Copán with much fondness and pride. I just love Copán. Para siempre!