A weekend of walking in Copan: Politics, water and Maya ruins

It was a good weekend for walking in Copan, hot but not roasting, and we did.
On Saturday morning, we hooked up with three people from the Spanish school, and a friend of one of them who is recovering from a less-than-great experience in La Ceiba. She had hoped to learn Spanish and volunteer. Neither went well, but the last part of her trip is.
We all paid $25 for a guided hike with Gerardo, who owns a hippish bar-restaurant called ViaVia. Live music some nights, movies others. We�re going to George Clooney�s latest tomorrow night.
Gerardo is a slightly crazed, skinny Belgian guy, maybe late-30s, who has been in Copan for eight years, researching an unwritten novel exploring the philosophy of low-budget backpack travel and running the restaurant. We piled into the back of a pickup, with his three dogs, and headed about 10 kilometres out of town where we started walking.
But not far. Gerardo�s guiding style involved impressive rants combining information, opinion and expletives on no end of topics, which could only be effectively delivered when he was stationary. We hiked up to a buried Mayan ruin, with an intricately carved stella on top, apparently a boundary marker for the kingdom of Copan, and heard about the history of the Maya, and five centuries of exploitation. �Basically, since Columbus showed up these people have been fucked over,� was Geraldo�s summary. We covered the local subsistence agriculture - beans and corn, basically, with maybe a few chickens to provide eggs - and why, despite the desperate poverty, it made sense for the Chorti, the local indigenous population, to stick with what they knew.
We hiked up hills, and along a valley with a beautiful stream and a series of waterfalls while Gerardo recounted, colourfully, the failure of a series of three well-meaning attempts to deliver water to a Chorti village on the top of the hill, which mostly delivered cars and cash to people who found a way to profit from projects that never worked. The ultimate stop on that leg of the tour was a grand-looking water tank, adorned with the Rotary logo and a sign saying that the Rotarians of Gastonia, N.C., had contributed $45,000 to complete the project in 2006-7. Except while there were pipe leading from the tank, there was no pump to move the water. The contractor took the money for a pump, but never installed it. The picture is from the Rotarians' website - it's amazing how much the jungle has grown around the tank in five years.)
It was all a bit gloomy, but helped paint a picture of the challenges of doing good in a complicated world. (And, for balance, check out the view of the Gastionian Rotarians on their projects in the area. Maybe by the end of a year or two I�ll know where reality lies.)
The walk was beautiful, and some of the fields amazing. The villagers plant corn and beans together, and some fields were on rocky slopes that would be too steep to be an expert run in any ski hill. The idea of harvesting by hand, in crushing heat, was amazing.
We met villagers along, the way, always friendly, and Jody drew big laughs from girls washing clothes in the stream when she showed them their pictures on her camera.
Today, we set out to walk to the ruins, exploring the stores in a new part of town on the way. We got lost - not unusual - and ended up crossing a bridge and walking along a dirt lane on the far side of the river.
People were streaming into town, mostly on foot. Apparently Sunday is the day to dress up and visit Copan to buy supplies and have a day off. The walk along the river was lovely, with lush fields on the other side of the lane, some with cattle, others with rows of crops under five-foot high hoops covered with light cloth. After about two kilometres, the road started climbing, and after a steepish hike we came to Hacienda San Lucas, a 100-year-old hacienda converted into a lush resort, with about 10 cabins and a dining room that is supposed to be great. The grounds were beautiful - there was a wooden-floored room, with curtained walls, that was for meditation and yoga and looked out to the river and the ruins. A stay is $140 a night - an enormous sum here.
We walked a trail through the woods and past a banana plantation to Los Sapos, another Mayan site, with a carving of a toad in the rocks and other figures.
A nice walk back, fried chicken from a takeout place, eaten in the square, with the scraps going to an incredibly skinny terrier, and home to study Spanish.

Don't worry, Mum and Dad, it's safe here

I had an email from my father today expressing alarm about the risks in Honduras and urging caution, noting my mother�s concerns for our safety. It�s disconcerting to find out your parents, in their mid-80s, are actively worried about you.
I understand. It was a jarring discovery for me, when Jody and I began living together, that worrying about children was a lifelong thing. My duo, Rebecca and Sam, were in their early teens. Rachelle, Jody�s youngest was Sam�s age. I hadn�t given the topic serious thought, but just assumed that once they were adults you could quit worrying about children.
Jody�s two oldest were adults, capable and smart. But I soon learned the worries changed, but they didn�t stop. Hearts could still be be at risk of breaking, dreams thwarted, hoped-for achievements could prove empty - and parents have to anticipate all those things, and share in the sadness if they happen. Not to mention the normal risks of life - icy roads and night bicycle rides and travels in strange parts. (The saying that parents are only as happy as their saddest child is, for most of us, true, for better or worse.)
Which leads, in a roundabout way, to safety in Honduras, and my parents worries as they keep an eye on the news in Medicine Hat.
We�ve been here less than two weeks, have really only seen Tegucigalpa and Copan Ruinas, and my Spanish is still so patchy I am functionally illiterate.
But there�s no denying that parts of Honduras are far more dangerous than we�re used to in Canada. San Pedro Sula, according to the United Nations, surpassed Ciudad Juarez in its murder rate last year, making it the world�s deadliest city.
In Tegucigalpa, the capital, where we spent a week, robberies are common and people who have a choice don�t walk anywhere after dark, which comes around 5:30 p.m. this time of year. A trip to a restaurant, even a few blocks in a good neighbourhood, means calling a taxi, preferably with a driver you already know. Gas stations have attendants, and a guard with a shotgun. Banks have more than one armed guard, and customers get a quick scan with a metal detector before they are allowed in to make their deposits. The photo at the top of the blog, by Jody Paterson, is of a typical corner store - pulperia - in Tegucigalpa. You ask for your potato chips and pop through the little window. Our in-country training included advice on what to do if confronted by a robber (move slowly, avoid eye contact, keep physical distance and hand over whatever he asks for as quickly and unthreateningly as possible).
The idea of reporting crimes to police isn�t even considered, and whoever has the razor wire franchise is Tegus has done very well.
In the two big cities, and apparently some rural areas, things have broken down in a way that would seem inexplicable to most Canadians. It will be a while before I know enough to offer any views about why, or what could be done about it. A major problem is the booming cocaine business, with Honduras as the midpoint between producers in countries to the south and the eager North American consumers. Maras - serious gangs - control some neighbourhoods in San Pedro Sula, collecting �taxes� in their barrios. The Peace Corps pulled its volunteers from Honduras this month, citing safety concerns. But there had been few incidents, and volunteers were mostly young and on minimal incomes, and thus more likely to be in higher risk situations. The U.S. is also looking to cut aid spending, and pressure Honduras for action on drug trafficking and corruption. The Peace Corps� decision fit with both goals.
(The Miami Herald offered some reporting and an editorial last week, for those who are interested. It does not note the impact of the 40-year �war on drugs,� a self-destructive, ineffective, costly and stupid exercise that has made the drug trade so lucrative and corrupting.)
It�s a sad situation, especially for people without the money to insulate themselves from the crime,
And even in Tegucigalpa, people were living their lives. We walked to a store to buy a music stand - Jody�s wouldn�t fit in the suitcase. People shopped in malls, kids went to school, life rolled on.
We spent a pleasant day in Santa Lucia, a town about 15 kilometres away, where life seemed much more normal. Houses weren�t hidden behind walls, no one seemed particularly worried about crime.
Here in Copan Ruinas, the feeling is similar. It�s fine, everyone agrees, to wander the streets after dark, though perhaps not too late. There are no security guards hovering outside stores, kids play outside at night and houses don�t have walls or locked gates. We carry laptops to the Spanish school, something that would be foolish in the two big cities. People smile when we say hola, three-wheeled taxis bounce over the cobblestones, there�s a walking trail to the Mayan ruins along the road into town. The corner stores are in the front rooms of people�s houses, and wide open, with less security than a Canadian 7-11.
It feels, so far, as safe as Victoria, or Medicine Hat (maybe safer than downtown Victoria at closing time).
When I know more, I�ll write more.
Meanwhile, I�ll be prudent, listen to my Spidey sense, and stay in a safe hotel and use Edgar, the tireless taxi driver we know, when we go to Tegucigalpa to renew visas in a few months.
But really, mum and dad, don�t worry. It�s nine on Friday night, and people are sitting outside talking in the warm evening and strolling down to the corner store.
We�re safe, and we�ll stay that way.

The soundtrack to our lives in Copan Ruinas

So far, one of the most striking things about our home stay in Copan Ruinas is the soundtrack accompanying life in our little family compound.
Right now, the family next door - two adult daughters of Esmeralda, our host, with children of their own - are listening to some techno-goth dance tracks, with the usual repetitive synth riffs, drum track and occasional lyrics contributed by a distorted voice urging us to �dance with the devil.
I�m in the main room in the house, at the dining table with my laptop. The light is a little harsh - two bare energy-saving bulbs in an overhead fixture. The front door is open, and, for no obvious reason, a neighbour�s dog offers enthusiastic barks as trucks grumbling up the cobblestone street contributing bass, while kids call out to each other. Behind me, in the kitchen, Esmeralda is talking to Rosita, whose 21st birthday fiesta we attended, and a young guy who might or not be her boyfriend, while a three-year-old girl, with shoes that flash light when she walks, asks questions. I have yet to figure out how she is connected to anyone here. Aaron, the baby next door, is crying.
There are crickets, or some sort of insect, adding a steady treble. The gate to the compound swings open, with a rusty screech, and voices murmur outside, snatches of conversation I can�t comprehend. From farther away, kids� shouts carry to the house.
It�s nice now, homey. It�s seven in the evening, and we had a couple of beers after class in ViaVia, joined by Percy from Cranbrook who is also in the Isbalanque Spanish School and came with us on a tour to a coffee finca this morning. So did Peggy Victoria. What are the odds that four people from B.C. would meet in a language school in Copan Ruinas.
The finca visit was interesting - a tour of the drying area, usually on a concrete pad in the sun, or in a giant wood and coffee-husk fired dryer if it�s cloudy. It�s a co-op, in the hills above town, and not your usual tour. We walked across a stream on a squared-off tree trunk and slide through barbed wire fences to see the coffee plants and the fields. A family was chopping weeds in one field, a woman, two children about seven and nine, and a weathered man who, when we drew closer, had only one hand but wielded his hoe deftly.
But back to the sounds. They are not always so benign.
Last night, Jody was fighting a cold and I was tired from the heat and the realization, after a four-hour lesson, that learning Spanish was going to be a big job. (Yes, I should have realized that earlier.) We trudged up the hill to the house, and crashed for a while, then ate huevos rancheros. They were really good - a poached egg with salsa, beans, local cheese with crema, which is a staple, and tortillas.
Then I just wanted somewhere to read, or do homework, or sit. There isn�t really anywhere like that.
So I collapsed on the bed in our little room. And all around, there were sounds. Outside our window - right outside our window - is an outdoor sink. It�s abut four feet by five feet, cement, and three feet deep. At one end, there�s a shallow concrete part, with ridges, that seems to be used for scrubbing clothes and washing dishes and multiple other purposes.
And for some two hours, the water was running into the tank, a steady waterfall about two feet from our open window.
That was the base for the soundtrack. On the street in front, a futbol game - or war, I couldn�t tell - kept a gang of boys shouting and hooting. Unmuffled motorcycles roared past, and trucks and the three-wheeled taxis that serve this hilly town. Dogs barked and, more pleasantly, so did geckos. Our other window is two feet from the house on the other side, where another daughter lives, and a lively, loud conversation continued there. In the kitchen - right outside our bedroom door - Esmeralda and a stream of visitors talked loudly, occasionally dropping their voices as someone thought about us, but only for a moment.
Once we turned out the lights, the water stopped running and the voices fell. But the motorcycles still roared by occasionally, and a grouchy dog barked at phantoms.
None of this is, I hope, complaining. But we lived in Victoria as two people in small space set back from the road, with three adjacent houses where people lived quiet lives. Most of the year, our windows were closed.
Now we�re in a three-house compound where people of all ages come and go, the doors and windows are all open and the street is part of the living space. Lives are lived loudly and publicly. There seems to be little sense of the need for silence - if the techno is too loud from the neighbouring house, or the children too noisy in the street, the solution is to turn up the cartoons the tired three-year-old is watching on the television.
Conclusions? We aren�t in Victoria anymore, and don�t over-romanticize the joys of communal living in a hot climate.

Our first fiesta

We�ve been here less than 48 hours, and attended our first fiesta.
Esmeralda, our home stay host, told us there was a party tonight. I think there were two birthdays, but I�m not really sure. My Spanish skills mean I am generally only half-certain about anything that�s going on, often much less. And I�m probably regularly wrong about the things that I think I understand. (Which might have been true even when I understood the language people were speaking.)
Breakfast yesterday was tamales purchased the night before from a neighbour cooking them in her backyard in a big tub over a wood fire. I�ve never been fond of tamales in Mexico - too mushy, like a pudding with chunks of boney chicken. But these were good - chicken, potato and rice in a thinner corn mush casing.
We wandered through the town, scoping it out, had a coffee near the square and I did homework on the roof of the house, while Jody played accordion, then another four hours of Spanish class. The extent of the task ahead grows increasingly claro. I can understand many things, thanks to a good ability to grasp parts of conversation and fill in the blanks. But I have the vocabulary of a two-year-old raised by neglectful parents and can only speak, haltingly, in the present tense. We switch teachers each week; I suspect that�s a good thing for the sanity of la maestra working with me.
We bought a cake for the fiesta - a pastel - and came home. Preparations were under way. We went with Esmeralda to a house around the corner, to get tortillas. Through a house to a backyard, where an older, dark-brown-skinned woman was taking clumps of dough from a large metal bowl, patting them into circles and cooking them on a big pan over a blazing wood fire. We joined several women waiting and left with an aluminum roasting pan full of hot tortilla.
Eventually we made our way to the adjoining house, occupied by a daughter of Esmeralda (another two daughters live in the house on the other side). It gradually filled with cousins and aunts and brothers and sisters and more cousins, sitting mostly in plastic chairs around the edge of the room, with a passel of children in and out of the house and music playing through very bad speakers in way that took me back to the days of Candle transistor radios. We were seated in the place of honour, a satiny sofa. I was introduced to many people, introducing myself as Pablo, offering my mucho gustos and nodded agreeably while smiling wildly as conversations swirled around me.
We ate - delicious chicken stewed in a mild red sauce, rice and vegetables and the tortilla - as people kept arriving. Jody played the accordion for an appreciative audience, we ate the cake and I identified at least one of the birthday people, Rosita, a beautiful young woman turning 21 in a sparkly brown shirt who did all the serving (and looked 15). The serving might be a convention. I don�t know. People kept showing up throughout the evening, and plates of food kept appearing for them.
One guest spoke English, a young Copan guy who spent six years in California studying archeology and then came back to do research at the ruins. He�s working on a site about two kilometres from the main archeological site; there are unexcavated sites all around this region.
We left about 9:45, when some others had gone and it seemed reasonable, but I can hear the party continuing as I write this - especially the loud voices of the young kids.
No big sociological conclusions from one fiesta, but it was a pretty big family gathering for a birthday, though it also reminded me of some WIllcocks gatherings in Toronto when I was a kid. (Except there was no alcohol at the fiesta, which was probably for the best - I was addled enough.)
I didn�t know what to expect about moving to Honduras. But I didn�t imagine myself plunged into someone else�s family life, buying tortillas from a neighbour woman, and sharing a fiesta with a bunch of people who didn�t even seem particularly puzzled to find a gringo sitting on the sofa eating birthday cake while Jody perched on a plastic stool and played Latin American songs on her accordion.

Settling into our new hometown

So I started to write about how strange this all is, and a tiny moth, brown and with perfect spread wings, landed on my computer screen, attracted by the light.
I�m sitting on the back patio of our home stay, with kids bicycles and mechanics equipment scattered around, boys playing futbol around the corner, Isabel, our host, singing as she cooks in the kitchen, which is behind my back. The boys have gathered around to say hello, improve my Spanish and test their English already.
There�s a wooden ladder propped against a fence, and the neighbour�s house is about five metres in front of me. An outdoor concrete sink is to my right, with the water running. I don�t know why. Laundry is hung on two lines, and the fence.
We�re in Copan Ruinas, arriving from Santa Rosa de Copan today and plunging into our home stay and four hours of Spanish. It�s dizzying.
We live here now. Not in the home stay, though Esmeralda would like that, but in the town.
Beautiful setting. Green hills rising all around, old, narrow cobbled streets and buildings that seem mostly at least 200 years old. About 8,000 people, although it feels much smaller.
I don�t know enough to write much about it. The Mayan ruins, about a kilometre outside town, give the place its name and at least some tourists, although the 2009 coup and crime issues in Honduras have made people reluctant to visit the whole country.
We travelled from Teguicigalpa with some Cuso people heading for a meeting in Santa Rosa de Copan, and ate dinner with them and three other Cuso vols, as they are called, from Calgary and Quebec. Spanish was the common language, which meant I was able to listen, but contribute little.
We caught a ride here this morning, visited the language school and got directions to our home stay. It�s up a cobblestone hill, a kitchen, living room, and three bedrooms, a small one with tiny bathroom for us. It�s rough by Canadian standards - small. rickety shelves, concrete walls partly painted, corrugated tin roof. But we aren�t in Canada - that�s the point.
The Ixbalanque Spanish school is in an old building in town, about a 15-minute walk, depending on how often we get lost. We plunged in, with the first of daily four-hour lessons, one on one. My instructor, a Honduran woman - la maestra is the title - seemed little daunted by my lame skills, and the 24-hour immersion should bring progress. Jody gets a month of lessons courtesy of Cuso as preparation for her placement, and I�m paying for mine. It is a bargain - about $225 a week for 20 hours of lessons, accommodations and three home-cooked meals a day. Lunch was chicken and rice in a mild chile sauce. Based on the smells from behind me, supper will be spectacular.
We stopped for a drink in a second-floor bar/restaurant on the way home. Pina coladas and caprihinas, $2 each. Watched the hills grow dark and the stars come out. It gets dark early in these parts, by 5:30 or 6.
Another person has shown up on the back patio, which seems to be shared by several families, to wash her dishes in an outdoor sink, offering a cheery hola.
We�re not in Victoria anymore.

Downtown Tegucigalpa

Day two of Cuso in-country training, and I recognized part of what I'm liking about the moving to Honduras experience.
I'm way out of the zone where I know what to do and can handle things easily, and back learning and figuring new things out.
We spent the morning with a journalist and a translator learning about the history, politics, culture and economy of Honduras. I'd read lots, but it was much different having a discussion and trying to get my head around what was going on, what's ahead and how people here can hope to sort things out.
The experience was intensified because the discussion between the journalist, translator and Cuso rep was often in Spanish as they discussed what was going on. Jody could do better, but our former dog Jack used to stare at me with cocked head when I spoke to him, as if he was trying desperately to make sense of the words. I now know how he felt.
I'm trying not to leap to any conclusions based on little information, but the country is in a fascinating mess, with very little that actually works and no clear route out. The coup in 2009 was a big problem, there are few functioning political or legal institutions, drug traffickers are powerful, people are poor and the economy is hurting.
Oh, and they're early victims of climate change weather extremes.
It's not just a matter of avoiding poorly informed conclusions. Some 17 journalists have been killed since 2009.
We went to the centro with the journalist in the afternoon, and walked around a bit and saw the Museum of National Identity, which had some interesting stories, and a 19th century opera house. It's a scruffy core, with a lot of unemployed people and few prosperous ones, and a mix of century-old buildings and 1960s ones in disrepair. Jody said it reminded her of Havana.
But the journalist knew everybody, from street people to the museum director, and had a good open vibe that drew the same in return, and it didn't feel dangerous. (Though I would not go for an after-dinner stroll there.)
I'm liking it all, I think largely because I'm in a new situation and I'm learning and processing new stuff constantly. You forget how much you can slip into not-learning mode.

I've got a new life, you would hardly recognize me

Well, you'd probably recognize me, but the new life part certainly applies. (And while the headline is from The Sign, I am referencing the Mountain Goats' version, not the Ace of Bass hit.
After a stressful, occasionally miserable four or five months, we're in Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital, as my partner gets set to start a one- or two-year placement with Cuso International. (They're still looking for a placement for me, but my Spanish is pretty poor, so that's a problem.)
I'll write more about Cuso and its process and my big problems reducing all our possessions to the limits of a six-foot by eight-foot storage locker.
This is just a brief update and an effort to keep the blog from becoming totally stale.
Honduras is certainly a place where Paying Attention should be a way of life. The country, as they say, has issues. The politics are unstable and it has become a big drug transit route from South America to the U.S. markets, which brings a whole truckload of problems. The largest city, San Pedro Sula, has bumped Ciudad Juarez from the world's top spot for murders. People are poor.
But we flew in yesterday and did a brief, careful walk in the neighbourhood and recognized that people are still going about their lives. Kids are going to school, people are working. We shopped at the Mas por Menas grocery and noted a music store where Jody might be able to get the music stand that wouldn't fit in our bags. (We were allowed 50 pounds each by the airline. Our big bag weighed 49.7 lbs; the two backpacks a combined 49.4 pounds. The carry-on baggage included an accordion, two laptops and various things that would have pushed the suitcases over the limit.)
Today was spent in briefings - with a doctor at one of the hospitals who went through an amazingly detailed, skillful and helpful presentation on diseases, food risks and insects. And, along the way, with interesting observations on culture and other issues. The hospital was older, but looked cleaner than the old building at the Royal Jubilee Hospital in Victoria.
We had lunch with three Cuso staff at the Thai King restaurant - go figure - and the afternoon was devoted to a security briefing. It was a little daunting.OK, pretty daunting. But ultimately, the risks seem manageable and we've travelled enough, I think, to have some skills.
I'm still processing it all, and in-country orientation continues for another three days.
But all-in-all, it feels very good to be in such an interesting place, where I know so little and there is so much to learn.


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