Living in Central America (in my case Honduras and Guatemala) is sometimes hard, mostly fun but never boring. Here some of my musings on life in this colourful part of the world where you can always expect the unexpected. Hence Serendipity, the gift of finding without seeking…

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Brief Encounters of the Human Kind III: Dangers on the Road

I often get asked whether I’m not afraid to walk by myself on the roads and trails surrounding Copán. The answer is: no. Not that I’m not aware of the risks or that I’m naive, it’s just that I know where I go and I know most of the people I meet. Or better said, they know me. At least half of them are ex-students of mine, the rest are relatives of ex-students of mine or people I dealt with at some point of my life. I think it helps that I walk with my dog (not that Luca would do much to protect me, but ssssshht, let’s keep that between us!) and that people know I’m not a rich gringa. A crazy gringa, maybe, but not much that would justify an assault. Let’s hope it stays that way…

Nonetheless, I’m always careful and keep a worst case scenario in mind. There are places I rather not walk and times you should avoid hiking alltogether, such as Sunday afternoons when you’re prone to meet a bunch of drunks. Not necessarily dangerous, but not much fun either.

Last Saturday I had no intention to walk anywhere, but I didn’t have much choice. I had finished painting a mural at a school at about 45 minutes walking from Copán, and was waiting for my ride. But my ride, usually very reliable, never showed. Nor did any moto-taxi, which didn’t surprise me, because they’re never there when you need them, that’s a law. I kept on calling my guy, but after thirty minutes or so I gave up and decided to walk home. I wasn’t happy about it. It was late afternoon, but still soaring hot and I was exhausted after a full day of painting. I also carried a heavy bag with me (at least my paint and ladder were locked up at the school) and I wore the wrong shoes. Not that there’s anything amiss with my ancient, paint-splattered favourite Converse All Stars, it’s just that the soles are so thin, I could feel every pebble on the road. So thin, actually, I could even feel the chewing gums stains and tell the flavour. But anyway, I didn’t have a choice. Luca wasn’t happy either. Normally she wouldn’t turn a walk down, but she’d played around all day long with kids and dogs, without a chance to cool off in the river. But off we went.
Thankfully, the road was quite flat, except for one hill I had to climb. And I was just about to reach the top of it when four guys appeared. I didn’t recognize them, but registered that they were not carrying machetes, which was good. However, I didn’t like the fact that the guy up front stopped the others for a moment and then headed straight towards me, placing his hand under his shirt, into his waistband. Was he carrying? Was there a way out? What did the others do?
Shit. There was no way out and they were all headed towards me. But then I realised that guy #1 wasn’t reaching for his gun, but putting his shirt inside his pants.
“Where are you coming from?” he asked.
“Oh, I just painted a mural over there at the school,” I answered.
“¡Oh! Are you from Spain???”
“No, actually I’m from Holland.”
“Aaaahh! ¡Una Holandesa de Holanda! So you’re not Spanish?”
“No, I’m quite Dutch”, was my reply.
By then he had grabbed my arm with both hands.
“You know, I LOVE YOU!” he said.
The second guy also grabbed my arm and said:
“I love her too!”
The first guy turned around and said, “No! I love her! I said it first!!!”
Guys number 3 and 4 joined the gang and also declared their love. My turn to politely decline and say thank-you-very-much-but-I have-to-go. They reluctantly let go of my arm. When I reached the top of the hill, I turned around. The four guys were still standing there, all waving good-bye.

The rest of the walk was hot, tedious and long, but otherwise uneventful. When I finally walked into town, I passed the house of my driver. He was sitting on the porch, enjoying a beer and the cool breeze the approaching night brought in.
“Hey!” he said, “I thought you’d call me to pick you up!”
I gave him a look that could kill and said I did, about a hundred times.
“Oh…” His face fell. “Right… I left my cell phone in my car… But at least you got some exercise!”
Another dagger look from my part before I continued home, to a decent bathroom, a couch and an ice-cold beer. On Sunday I stayed in. Enough exercise for the week. Even Luca agreed.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Ronny Be Good

Ronny was standing out even when he was little. I remember him all too well as a first grader when I visited his school in the small community of la Laguna, about fourteen years ago.
I was reading a story as an ice breaker because the kids were, as usually in Maya Chortí villages, very shy. But not Ronny. He wasn’t even interested in the story, and asked if he could go to the bathroom.
On his way back to the classroom, he was singing on top of his lungs, completely oblivious to the fact that we could all hear him through the open screens. He was so loud that I interrupted the story to wait for Ronny to come back. It wasn’t until he walked into the classroom that he realized he was the centre of attention. He flashed a dazzling smile, shrugged his shoulders and sat down.

A year later I continued conducting art workshops in La Laguna and was disappointed to find out that Ronny hadn’t passed on to second grade. Well, his teacher said, he’s a bright kid. He just doesn’t do any schoolwork. Ever!

One year after that, Ronny was still in grade 1. And that was pretty much the end of his academic career.

Throughout the years I’d see Ronny in town every once in a while, or galloping by on his horse, always with this huge grin on his face. He reminded me of Pippi Longstocking, Peter Pan and other unconventional childhood heroes.

We met again when Ronny was around fifteen years old, at the re-opening ceremony of the Cabañas Fort in Copán. As usual, I was on time, and so was Ronny, plus a few other people from the surrounding villages. While we were waiting for the ceremony to start, one of the girls assisting at the event was handing out tickets for lunch to every single person she encountered. I very much doubted that she was meant to do that, since lunch was going to be an exclusive affair at a fancy hotel. So I asked her, but she said she was to invite everybody. Okay then… (Then her boss showed up and all hell broke loose.)
Anyway, while waiting for things to get started and things to get over with, it occurred to me that Ronny might be a good candidate for the assistant position we had open at the time. We needed a kid who could run errands and do some odd jobs here and there. No diplomas required, just an eagerness to learn, a good vibe and a sense of humour. Ronny would be perfect!

So I called him over, made the proposal and a spark in his eyes and big grin were the answer. I asked to talk to his mom, who was present too, and she was also happy for Ronny to have a real job.
“So I’ll see you tomorrow at our office at 8.00am!” I said.
“I’ll be there at 7.00!” Ronny excitedly replied.
“No,” I said, “8.00! We start at 8.00!”
But Ronny had already run off.

The ceremony dragged on. It was way passed lunchtime, according to my stomach, and the event was far from over. When finally the last words were spoken, we were out of the Fort and into a moto-taxi in no-time, on our way to the hotel for that fancy –although belated-lunch.
It had been a mistake to think that getting there early would mean that we would be able to eat soon, since it was not a buffet in the restaurant, but a gorgeous set-up at the lawn of the hotel where we would be catered to as soon as all guests had arrived. So we sat down at one of the tables, enviously eying the centrepiece decorated with grapes and apples.

Guests were arriving one by one and the place started to fill up slowly. All of a sudden I saw Ronny among them, lunch ticket in his hand, curiously looking around him. As self-confident as he was, he did look completely out of place
among the other guests in his rubber boots and dirty jeans. I yelled out to him and he eagerly ran towards us.
Ronny sat down at our table and when I asked him how he had gotten to the hotel, a few miles out of town, he said he had taken one of the shuttle buses hired for the event, just like everybody else. We chitchatted on, trying to ignore the rumble in our stomachs that had become quite loud by now.
“My mom!” yelled Ronny suddenly, and indeed, the tiny Maya Chortí woman timidly crossed the lawn, followed by two more women and some kids. Ronny dragged them all to our table and with a borrowed chair and some moving around, we all fit.
“My cousins!” Ronny cried out, when he saw two young men, also dressed in work clothes and rubber boots, stepping on to the lawn. Alas, they didn’t fit at our table, so they sat at the table next to us that was already partially occupied by a couple that owns a couple of the biggest hotels in town.

Finally all guests had arrived and food was being served. Unfortunately we sat on the wrong side of the lawn and had to wait for our turn for what seemed to last forever. So I tried to entertain our company by taking apart the decorative centre piece and giving the apples and grapes to Ronny & Co. That was quite something, since none of them had ever tried those fruits before. 
Then we were finally being served. Lunch was eaten in silence. Ronny, his mom, his aunt and sister, would take little bites, chew carefully and then look at each other, communicating with their eyes in a way that made me feel left out but curious. The kids were also fed a fork of everything, but whatever was left over after that was carefully wrapped in a napkin and put away in their plastic baskets.
This went on course after course. When finally dessert was served (fried squash floating in honey) I saw Ronny’s mother thinking: how the hell wrapping that up?!?
“I’d just eat it here, if I were you,” I said, realizing too late I reacted to an unspoken question
“Yeah, you’re right,” she said, blushing slightly.
And then, as slowly as the whole event had started, as suddenly it was over, as usually in Honduras once dessert is served.

Ronny showed up the next morning at 7.00am, and kept showing up at 7.00am, despite the fact that we usually, if not always, opened our office at 8.00am. But how can you scold someone for punctuality in a country were tardiness is more common than sunshine?
Unfortunately, Ronny didn’t work long with us. Not that he wasn’t a good worker. He was fast. Incredibly fast! Sometimes I’d give him an assignment and he would literally be back in two minutes, already done. Usually it meant he had to do it over again, because following instructions wasn’t his strength, but his energy and willingness to learn made up for it. Regrettably, Ronny did not quite get the concept that having a job means that you have to show up every day, unless you ask permission. So the third day Ronny didn’t show up, because he had to bring back his horse that had wandered off to a neighbouring village. The fifth day, his mom had asked him to drop off a sack of rice at his grandma’s. On workday number 8, his horse had wandered off again, this time in the opposite direction.
Day number 10, 11 and 12 passed without any sighting of Ronny. On day number 13 I realised we should forget about him. A pity, but well, these things happen.

Two years ago I saw Ronny again. He had just started working at a car workshop I often pass when I go walking. When I first greeted him, he hid from me, I guess because he thought I’d me angry and resentful, but I’m not, so I asked him about his new job. He proudly told me how he was going to be a mechanic. I told him I was really happy for him, that he would make a great mechanic, just to stick to the job this time and show up every day.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah…” he mumbled, “That’s not a problem anymore, because I sold my horse. “

So far two years have passed, and Ronny is still working as a mechanic-assistant. I see him almost daily waiting in front of the workshop, at 7.00am when I walk my dog.
The workshop opens at 8.00am.
Some things never change.

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 my hands.

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 Copán.

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 heart.

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!

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Brief Encounters of the Human Kind II: Sex Talk

It must have been a Sunday, because the church along the riverside was about to start its service.
Even before I registered it, my dog Luca had already noticed that the gate to the church’s compound was open and she ran off to look for her friend Erly, a beautifully orange coloured sort of bloodhound. As scary looking as he might be, he’s in fact very friendly. He loves my Luca and getting his ears scratched. But the guard who stood before the gate, a big revolver stuffed in the back of his jeans, didn’t know that and took a step back in order to avoid being in the middle of a possible dog fight.
“Don’t worry!” I yelled, because I’d never seen the man before and didn’t know how he would react. “They’re friends!”
“Oh,” he answered, still somewhat unsure, and lowered his sombrero over his forehead. Then he added: “Ah, I see. She’s a female. No problem then.”
“Nope.” I answered.

The man, whose age was indefinable, but far from young, stood observing the dogs that were sniffing each others butts and excitingly wagging their tails. Then he asked:
“But aren’t you worried she might get pregnant?”
“No. She’s fixed.”
“Operated. She can’t have puppies.”
“Ah! I see! The same way they fix women too!”
“Well, yes, pretty much so.”
“So just like women, she doesn’t get in the heat anymore?”
I started to feel slightly uncomfortable, but answered nonetheless.
“Actually, she does. She didn’t get a hysterectomy. She just got her tubes tied, if you know what I mean.”
“Yes, yes… of course…” The man looked thoughtful.
“That’s good then,” he continued. “Because I’ve heard that if you cut a man’s balls off, he can’t, you know… anymore…”
By now I really wanted to walk on, but felt obliged set this straight. So I explained that only male dogs get neutered (Their balls cut off, was the expression I actually used), while with humans they do the tube tying thingy. And they still can have sex. Both men and women.
“Oh. Okay.” The man looked relieved. He absently played with the butt of his revolver. “That is good to know!”

Then a car with late worshippers needed us to clear the gate. This was my cue.
“Well, goodbye, have a good day!” I said, while dragging Luca away from the love of her life.
“Yes, you too! Nice talking to you!”

Sex talk with a stranger on a Sunday morning in front of a church. Hallelujah!

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Brief Encounters of the Human Kind I: A Boozy Embrace

It was around 7.30 in the morning when I headed back to town from one of my morning hikes. Just ahead of me, a guy came stumbling out of a bar. He stopped when he saw me, swaying dangerously on his feet.
“Good morning! How are you!” he yelled, surprisingly articulate for the state he was in.
“I’m fine, thank you,” I answered.
“I’m not,” he chuckled. “I have a bit of a hangover.”
I figured he was still pretty drunk and would have a mother load of a hangover awaiting him, but who am I to bring him the news.
The guy walked with me towards town.
“Do you speak English?” he asked.
“Yes, I do”.
“Me too,” he said. “One…three…five…ten!”
No comment.
After a while the guy asked if I could speak Maya chortí. I answered him that I only knew a few words.
“Speak to me in Chortí!” he requested.
So I humoured him and told him the five words or so I know in Maya Chortí.
The guy stopped in the middle of the street, placed both hands over his heart and said with an expression of sheer delight:
“So you’re my compatriota!”

Should I explain him that I’m Dutch and that speaking English and five word of Maya Chortí doesn’t make me his compatriot? Nah…
Then the guy said:
“I’m gonna hug your dog!” And indeed, he got on all fours and tightly hugged my dog.
“And know I’m gonna hug you, my compatriot!”
Before I could decline, he threw his arms around me, placed his head on my chest, held me tight, leaving me overwhelmed by a stench of booze and serious lack of personal hygiene.
A sudden as that, he let go of me when his attention was caught by yet another cantina we were passing. Without saying goodbye, he stumbled into the bar. 
Me and my dog continued to walk. Home. Shower.