Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Slow Ride to Paradise: A Weekend in Tela

On Friday, I woke up unexpectedly at the dark and chilly hour of three-thirty. I couldn’t sleep from the excitement of a visitor and the anticipation of a long journey: five hours alone to the airport in San Pedro Sula to retrieve Dante, my handsome guest. There was no returning to sleep so I reread Lonely Planet articles about how much I should anticipate paying for taxis in the big city.

The first ride was by motorcycle, a rush down the mountain that left my feet a little wet and frozen from river crossings. My driver, fellow volunteer Alan, and I had set out to hitchhike to Comayagua, where I would continue the journey on my own, but were almost immediately separated when the first vehicle that pulled over, a slightly suspect looking van with a small chemical gasmask symbol painted on the back, turned out to be going all the way to San Pedro.

The driver and his son were unbelievably sweet newspaper deliverymen, weary, quiet and delighted to have a change of companion. I sat between them for nearly four hours, the landscape changing from foggy mountains to dry-grass valley, to more tropical mountain roads lined with tire shops and roadside “stuff” vendors, past the vast Lago de Yajoa, and the dozens of fish restaurants all in a row, across farmland and finally into the chaos of civilization. San Pedro Sula is famous as the “Murder Capital of the World,” though far as I could observe, the real danger is the road-rage from the traffic that doesn’t move and the lanes that don’t exist.

My driver, Eduardo, was no exception. Boy, did he have a special relationship with his horn, accompanied by a sigh and a headshake whenever any car stepped out of line. There were probably more honks than words in the four hours we spent together, but in the end, he helped me cold-shoulder haggle for a very cheap taxi ride out to the obscure airport, and I couldn’t have been more grateful. Eduardo, who works incredibly hard distributing newspapers in the graveyard shift, driving five hours daily between the two biggest cities in Honduras, and his kind teenaged son in the purple Crocs, they saved my hiney, reminded me of humanity, and saved me a buck. Sometimes it pays off to take a chance on strangers.

Without a hitch (well, with a hitchhike, but no systematic issues), Dante and I reunited at the miniscule major airport of this country (I was stunned by the insect-sized proportions of this place. The parking lot was the size of one at a Target.) We bargained our way to the bus station and caught an un-express schoolbus to Tela, our beach town destination two hours away.* More honking and ample stopping filled our ride (as did ice cream!) and I was impressed by Dante’s quick adaptation to the slow pace of travel and life.
Well hello there, sea! Hello there, afternoon breeze! 

Our walk into steamy Tela reminded me immediately of Havana. Charming and sea-worn, wrinkled and tanned men sit in chairs on the sidewalk observing the passing foot traffic. Bachata music streams out of unbarred windows and stray dogs roam, food vendors sell Honduran specialties our of large plastic tubs in front of clothing stores and the pst pst catcall of strolling young gawkers fills the air. Tela is wonderful.

ACCOMMODATION RECOMMENDATION! Before this trip I had tried to research Tela, which is only breaking the surface of tourism, and had no success in finding a place to stay. While we were strolling into downtown, six blocks from the beach, we were beckoned “Pase adelante!” by a sweet woman inside Hotel Bertha, an unsuspecting, clean, inviting, barebones hotel. We passed inside and were given a room with a fantastic rotating fan, towels and even a tiny bar of soap for 280 Lempiras – less than $15 a night. For travelers like us who want to spend time at the beach and don’t need much but a comfortable mattress, a cold shower and friendly service, people have to stay here.

And so we passed the weekend mostly not in our cheap and lovely room but in the streets of Tela, walking around town, eating everything, swimming in the warm and beautiful Caribbean, chatting under palm trees, shooing away the women who want to braid my hair (oh come on, it will look terrible), buying ice cream cones, meeting curious strangers, and happening on the most peculiar things, like a truck transporting a pair of fully-grown lions.

Each hour seemed to change the city so much – first there are fruit vendors, then no fruit vendors, then there are crowds of shoppers, then there is no one, then there are buses, then no buses. Where did everyone go? Maybe they were ebbing and flowing like us, in and out of nap time in the heat of the day. We kept finding ourselves on the same streets, completely impressed by their novelty until we figured out we had already been there, twice.

The best of coastal life passed between us for two days and we walked out at sunrise on Sunday, satisfied, rested and well-fed. We arrived back at school via hitch, hitch, bus, hitch and hike, just in time to make tortillas.

Thanks to Eduardo, every baleada maker in Tela, Hotel Bertha and the superior Caribbean for a well-spent rest.

*I left home at 6AM. We arrived in Tela at 4PM.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Secret Garden

It could have been a bridge, but now it's a mystery!

Out the gate, down the dusty road, past the junkyard in front of Elias’ house, through the grassy field that feeds Erlinda’s cattle, across the new concrete bridge that keeps us fed during the wet season, skirting Fancho’s tomato fields and avoiding the cat calls that spout out of the muslin-wrapped rows, up the aerobic-inducing inclined stone road, tiptoeing over the slippery river stones (Careful! Wet feet are not desirable!) – you will find the Secret Garden.

A barbed wire fence separates it from the world but the entrance has been trampled to the ground, seemingly by cows or horses, whose poop piles are scattered fresh and old over the ground. Passing through the entrance, there is a (comparatively) large house, hollowed out by weather, time and disrepair. It must have had a family once, because there are logs sanded into stools visible through the open wall, which wasn’t always open, but now has an enormous hole. When the wind blows, the less attached metal roof flaps around and makes creepy noises. A stone laundry washing area sits abandoned and there is even an attractive gazebo, where I can imagine a family sitting in the evening, overlooking the river.

But while the semi-creepy homestead is abandoned, the property is teeming with life. Gnarled trees and bushes that were once cared for (many are growing inside of Goodyear tires) now grow wild and crazy. It’s not fruit season right now, so although I can identify at least a dozen giant mango trees, there’s nothing too exciting about them currently. But what I did go crazy for were the lemons. Giant lemons the size of grapefruit are weighing the branches of the trees down to the ground, and there are hundreds of them! It smells like a well-cleaned kitchen, with a hint of cow patty.

Flacco romps the garden as we collect lemons!
I’ve filled my backpack twice now, which makes crossing the stones in the river difficult with ten pounds of citrus behind you, and heaved them the half-hour or so back to campus. We made lemonade for the girls for Valentine’s Day and we’re hoping to start using juice to clean instead of bleach. We can use it (those of us few blondes) to lighten our hair! I’ve started sticking peels inside my smelly shoes! And the best for me, is the journey. Haven’t you always wanted to discover something forgotten, unused, an entirely intriguing?

The Secret Garden beyond the river crossing is a childhood fantasy of mine. It’s one of the biggest reasons I go exploring every day, mapping unmarked trails in my mind. The magical and lonely mountain hideaways are a favorite perk of the backcountry. Plus, there’s lemons, and I can constantly make lemonade.

Friday, February 14, 2014

A Visit From the Vendors of Joy

“It’s pretty melted but we came all the way from Zambrano,” said the men with the beat-up plastic cooler full of orange/yellow/white swirl ice cream. I peeked into the container and it looked a bit gnarly, not properly separated like a sunrise Neopolitan, but the message was clear: it was creamy, icy, sugary goodness sitting on the back of that motorcycle.

No matter that we had just eaten lunch, which was exceptionally decadent with small beef chunk sitting on vegetable and rice soup. (Beef? What is that?) No matter that I was getting ready for a hike. A teacher burst into the living room spouting “I think…there’s ice cream…5 lempiras…by the classrooms…” 

Five lempiras is twenty-five cents. Five lempiras is also a fairly useful bill denomination to have. You can buy five small coconut candies with five lempiras. You can buy half a baleada at the market with five lempiras. These two gentlemen, smiling but exhausted having just motorcycled an hour up the bouldered, rutted, rivered road (one smiling more than the other – the one scooping the ice cream was bashful, and most likely didn’t appreciate how much of his product was dripping down his hands), made that trip for five lempiras a cone.

The cone was handed to me with shaking hands and it was already dripping. I licked the miniature cone and I was in heaven. What can I do to keep this from melting? How can I make this last? I thought. But then I knew: this wasn't for saving. This was for here an now, one minute of wonder. Here and now, I didn't imagine it any different, only as the heartfelt delicious mess it was. 
Now, go out and get yourself some lovin'!

If we’re going to put this under an economic microscope, it made absolutely no sense for the ice cream to come to campus. At best they sold forty tiny cones of ice cream to the volunteers, students, staff and Honduran workers. Twenty dollars to spend all day hauling half-melted product up an unpleasant mountain path.

But let’s not put this anywhere near a microscope, because it isn’t science. This is joy. Joy for us, with a tiny ball of melted Creamsicle –flavored icy cream that we have to eat like thirty camels in the heat of the day. Joy for the men, who turn a tiny profit but get permission to visit a school of beautiful women who rarely receive visitors. They fill their day with purpose, and we enhance ours with muddled mid-day dessert.

The tiny things are worth loving here, there, and everywhere, and sometimes they drive out of the woods on a Thursday. Happy Valentines Day, to al the tiny things worth loving!

Monday, February 3, 2014

Outgrowing Poverty, In The Backyard

Statistics aren’t fun and facts aren’t always true, but what seems to be true about Honduras is most people are poor.

Poverty looks different here than it might on a UNICEF commercial. Children have clothing, though it is holey and thin. Families have food, though it is monotonous and unbalanced. There is transportation, though unreliable, and there is healthcare, though expensive. There is education, but it is only mandated to age 12 and the “cracks” to slip through here seem to be gorges compared to those in the United States. Trash is burnt, radio stations crackle and Monday through Saturday those who can work, do work, return home covered in dirt, cement, or grease, and save nearly nothing.

Bryan Butler, a Canadian professor who lives north of here came to lecture on Friday about alleviating poverty with agriculture. This guy was sharp, with credentials and experiences so vast he couldn’t have possible fabricated them: developing farm systems in Africa for over ten years, building schools out of shipping containers in Honduras, sustainable farming in Cuba, Guatemala, you name it. It gets me all tingly to be around intelligent go-getters who aren’t deterred by the size of global problems!

He spoke simply and with humor: In the area of a large-ish backyard, any Honduran could surpass minimum wage and keep their family well-fed and have extra to share and plan for the future, if they practiced integrated agriculture. Two 250-square-foot beds of tomatoes could set you up good for life. Even better if you grow carrots and lettuce and radishes, too, all in the space of a two classrooms. Grow trees with fruit you can eat, use them to line your property, stoke your fire and feed your compost. Have chickens and pigs and feed them any organic material your family doesn’t want and you can’t sell. Save your urine and fertilize your plants with it. (An squeamish ayyyyyyyy passes through the students.) You could do all this in the morning and still have time to watch soap operas in the afternoon, he touted.

Most of the women were impressed but not about to rush out and ask rich uncle (which everyone seems to have!) for $1000 to buy an acre of land (Yes, that’s all it takes). The majority would like to own brick-and-mortar businesses to provide whatever their community is missing, like school supplies, and don’t fancy themselves slopping carrot tops to pigs and peeing in composting toilets. But they could do it in their yards! They could feed their parents and grandparents and children and neighbors. They could save the world using what they have an abundance of in Honduras: earth.

We've got gardens, yes we do!
Why not? I couldn’t stop thinking. Why not here, or there, or at home, or anywhere. If you’re in California where you can’t sell it, then eat it and stop paying Berkeley Bowl for quality you can make yourself. (Except they give you free cheese, and you can’t beat that unless you own a dairy cow and make your own.) All of the volunteers were similarly affected. Don’t waste the land you have growing things you can’t eat or share. Stop messing around: put some seeds in the ground right this very minute!

Dear Mom and Dad, I will not dig you a compost toilet, but I will be turning your backyard into an oasis of nutrition, beauty and sustainability. We will not collect our urine, because Kiera will freak out.