Christmas in the tropics always seems a bit out of place to me. Tradition and Americanization go hand in hand in Honduras. Families gather to eat tamales with rompopo while Santa joins baby Jesus under the artificial Christmas tree. I‘ve never been able to get really in the Christmas mood in here. I associate the holiday with cold weather and long dark nights. Santa on his sleigh with snow covered reindeer under the blazing sun? I still find it a little odd.
However, for Hondurans, Christmas is one of the most important holidays of the year. Many poor children who never celebrate their birthdays get new clothes on Christmas Eve and proudly show them off during the next few days. In December people get paid an extra salary and all kinds of businesses eagerly try to have people spend their money. Now is the time for great offers on plasma TVs, refrigerators or DVD players. That is, if you don’t mind standing in line.
But this year is a little different, at least in Copán Ruinas. Whereas Honduras is not alone in its economic crisis, I think that Copán has been hit specifically hard. Tourism is at an all-time low at a moment that things didn’t go that well in the first place. It’s been a while since the crisis just affected the pockets of hotel and restaurant owners or others directly depending on tourism. Taxi drivers complain, vendors at the market have less to offer than usual and stores are noticeably emptier than before. Most businesses in town can’t afford to pay minimum wages and few people will receive their additional month of salary this year. Not that that isn’t their constitutional right, but if there’s simply no money…? I know for a fact that many kids in town won’t have new clothes this year and Christmas dinner will be a meager one.
The crisis has led to a whole new sort of unofficial economy. For a while now more and more women have been selling meals from their home or they send their kids out on the streets to sell. The number of street vendors has tripled, at least. Another new development is people selling secondhand clothes from their homes. A new Ropa Americana pops up at least every week. And especially in the weekends there are pickup trucks on every corner selling all kids of things, from melons to jeans and women’s underwear.
People are desperate to sell and if that means to put the whole merchandise on the sidewalk, then they do so. Just around the corner here is a little store that sells a bit of everything cheap (clothes, pots, pans, toys, backpacks, flower pots, firecrackers etc.). The store opened only a few weeks ago, and apparently selling from inside the store was not working, so the girl started to put a few things out on the narrow sidewalk. Then a few more things. And more. Recently, she started occupying the parking spot in front of her business. Then the neighbours started to do the same and within no time the whole narrow and heavily trafficked street turned into an outdoor market. This new strategy has been spreading around town like the plague and now you have people occupying the sidewalks with tables, counters and complete awnings everywhere. All this of course combined with the Christmas tradition of putting huge speakers outside the store to attract customers, usually at the highest distorted volume, and you can imagine the scene. Walking through the streets of Copán has become sort of an obstacle course these days. It’s not a particular pretty sight and probably illegal as well. But it is also understandable that everybody tries to make a living in those hard times.
Well, let’s hope that everybody is making a bit of money this holiday season. And if the merchandise can go back indoors in January, that wouldn’t be a bad thing either. For now, we just have to hopscotch around Copán to avoid dangling bras, stacks of buckets and flying firecrackers. Because despite of the crisis, there’s always money for firecrackers. Lots of them.