Jan. 6, 2001
San Antonio Palopó, Guatemala
We flew most of the way this year, and arrived in Guatemala City on
Christmas Day. We had wondered whether traveling on Christmas was a
bad idea, but everything went smoothly. Probably nearly everyone who
was going somewhere for the holidays was already where they were going,
leaving the airports and bus stations calmer than usual. Our fellow
travelers seemed to be an unsentimental bunch and we heard little mention
of the holiday.
From Guatemala City we had hoped to get to Panajachel, the resort
town on Lake Atitlan which is just a few miles from San Antonio. But
we couldn't find transportation at that late hour, so we took a taxi
to Antigua, which is only 45 minutes of so from the airport. Antigua
is an attractive colonial town popular with tourists, ex-patriates and
students who come there to attend the numerous language schools.
In years past I wouldn't be caught dead in a taxi or tourist shuttle
here. I figured what was good enough for the Guatemalans was good enough
for me, and always insisted on traveling by public bus. But this year
in addition to our travel packs we had a crate of Christmas presents
for my godchildren, and we didn't feel like dealing with Guatemalan
Actually, this was not the first time I had succumbed to the lap of
luxury. Last Easter my mother and I spent a couple weeks here. She had
broken her arm just a couple of days before we arrived so I didn't make
her fight her way onto the colorful but overcrowded public buses. We
got around exclusively by taxi, tourist shuttle and even a small airplane.
I kinda liked it.
Once you've broken ranks with the common folk it is hard to stop sliding
down the slippery slope of comfort and convenience. But I'm not too
worried. Our travel budget will quickly compel Faye and I to reunite
with the bus people.
In Antigua we stayed at Posada Refugio, a modest lodging that has
been popular with budget travelers for something more than the dozen
years that I've lodged there. The beds are lumpy, the rooms are painted
a particularly unpleasant shade of green, the facilities are shared
by all and are, shall we say, unpretentious. But the price is right-
a little more than six dollars for the two of us.
I've written before about how disorienting it is to fly here, rather
than taking the bus through Mexico as we have done a few too many times
before. We arrived in Antigua about 36 hours after we left Ashland.
We needed food and sleep. Most of the restaurants we were familiar with
had thoughtlessly closed for Christmas, so we ate our first meal in
Guatemala at a cheap Chinese place, whose employees evidently had a
better work ethic.
Back at Posada Refugio we collapsed on our lumpy beds and slept soundly,
our dreams muddled by snatches of various foreign languages and the
explosions of celebratory firecrackers which broke through to our subconscious.
When we awoke night had fallen and we both had trouble figuring out
where we were. Later, as we went out in search of supper I felt like
I was watching a 3-D movie, in the scene but not part of it. Such was
the feeling of disorientation. It was a couple of days more before the
feeling fully faded.
We made it out to San Antonio the day after Christmas. We were met
by the welcoming faces of my little family here. They quickly relieved
us of our luggage and carried it all up to our room. We've stayed in
the same place for four years now. So, while I can't say it felt like
home, it certainly felt familiar. Each year when we return there are
more improvements to our quarters. The first year we were here we cooked
our meals over an open fire and bathed in the lake. The second year
we gained the use of a small adobe building next to our room to use
as a kitchen, and was loaned a propane stove. I think it was later that
year that we got a water spigot in our yard so we didn't have to carry
it in buckets from the community spigot.
The major improvement this year is a shower with hot water. When we
arrived Petrona, an aunt of my godchildren who owns the place we stay,
proudly showed us the shower but apologized that the water heater didn't
work. Here, a common form of water heater is an electrical apparatus
that is built into the showerhead. The temperature of the water is inversely
proportional to the volume. You can have a nice flow of tepid water,
or a trickle of hot water. For those of us who were raised with the
idea that electrical appliances should be kept away from water, standing
under a showerhead with wires coming out the top is a little disconcerting.
Still, I had to figure out why the thing wasn't working. I turned
the water on, and half of it came squirting out the top, around the
wires. That can't be good, I thought. I took everything apart, dried
it out, and eventually got it fixed so water only came out where it
was supposed to. At some point the wet apparatus must have blown the
breaker. I fiddled with that a bit and got electricity restored. Petrona
was very impressed, and we are able to take at least lukewarm showers.
Fear of electrocution tempers our enjoyment.
My godchildren are all doing well and are growing up fast. Angelina
will start fifth grade later this month, Bruce enters second grade and
Yessica starts first grade. Sarita is three, and is a real handful,
as she has been from the time she was born. It will be very interesting
to watch her grow up. She doesn't speak any Spanish yet, only Cakchiquel,
the Mayan dialect spoken by the people around here. But she is pretty
good at making her will known, so I've picked up a few more Cakchiquel
words from her. Sometimes she will whisper something earnestly into
my ear and I have no idea what she is saying. But it doesn't seem to
matter. When it matters she figures out a way of making me understand.
During the first few days we get back to the village we run into many
friends, asking the usual questions- How are you? When did you get here?
How long did it take? How much did it cost? Shortly after we arrived
we were invited to the home of a family Faye has known for a few years.
It was a traditional one-room adobe house, with some additions for extended
family. It was located a ways up the mountainside, but the hike was
worth it. The view was spectacular, out over Lake Atitlan with the volcanoes
in the background. We looked down on part of San Antonio. The corrugated
tin roofs formed a picturesque patchwork pattern in various shades of
rust. Directly below us was the ravine which serves as the village dump,
which detracted a bit from the scenery.
We were invited in to chat. Faye had to remove a couple of chickens
from one of the beds to give ourselves a place to sit. Other chickens
wandered around on the earthen floor. A child brought in a puppy and
put it on the other bed. Faye commented that they must really like animals.
Just then a pig emerged from under the second bed and walked drowsily
out the door.
We were graciously offered a hot drink called "atol" which
is made from corn flour and sugar, about the consistency of a gruel.
Faye was a little afraid of being poisoned, and the thought certainly
passed through my mind. But we accepted the drinks in the spirit they
were given, and suffered no ill effects.
A lot of the people here haven't heard that "cleanliness is next
to godliness." For many it is next to impossible. When the walls
and floor are made of dirt, and everything is cooked over an open fire
there is only so much you can do. When we are here during the holidays
we are often invited to various homes where we sometimes eat food from
kitchens of questionable cleanliness. But so far so good. Most of the
holiday specialties are various flavors and consistencies of corn meal.
I actually like most of it. It is a real honor to be invited to share
their food, so we do our best to enjoy it.
This year for a change we spent New Years in Panajachel. Fireworks
are a big holiday tradition here. I'm sure in comparison a war zone
would have seemed tranquil. Perhaps safer too. We dodged fireworks as
we walked around town, and near midnight the field next to our hotel
caught fire. We were glad to get back to the village where things are
usually more peaceful.
The man who lives in the place at the bottom of our stairs is on his
an annual New Year's bender. We hear him moaning and crying out during
the day and half the night. Normally he is a very mild-mannered guy.
He listens to sermons on his radio all day as he works. (He is an excellent
seamster.) I don't know whether the sermons drive him to drink, or whether
he listens to them most of the year in atonement for the couple of weeks
he is drunk. He usually emerges around the middle of January looking
haggard and contrite.
A couple of years ago Don Pablo, the patriarch of the family, bought
a Mitsubishi mini-van. He is nearly blind now. But he couldn't drive
even if he could see. No one else in the family can either. I have no
idea why he bought it. The vehicle has sat idle since. Last year they
evidently thought there was a problem with the carburetor. Kennedy,
Don Pablo´s only son, looked near and far for a replacement, without
success. I had no reason to doubt the diagnosis, so I didn't check into
This year the car was becoming a real eyesore. Two of the tires were
flat, it was dirty and the kids were using it to play inside. I decided
to intrude. My automotive knowledge is pretty much limited to old Volkswagens,
but I figured I had to know more than they did. That was an idea which
seemed to surprise them. Just as we sometimes limit them according to
our ignorance, they sometimes limit us according to theirs.
Anyway, after tinkering for a bit all I could find wrong was a stuck
accelerator and a leaky gas line. I fixed those and the car started
up just fine. Most of the family was on hand for the blessed event.
The excitement and amazement on their faces was more than I deserved.
They thought I was a mechanical genius. Life should always be so easy.
Alva immediately asked me if I would give her driving lessons. (Alva
is a daughter of Don Pablo, one of Petrona´s younger sisters.)
In a year or so she will be the first person in the village to graduate
from university. Now she wants to be the first woman in the village
to drive a car. My fear is that letting her behind the wheel might put
her graduation in jeopardy.
As it turned out, all the excitement was a bit premature. The next
morning as we got ready for a test drive I found there was a big problem
with the clutch. I had to admit it was more than I could handle. I'm
sure my newly elevated status dropped by at least a couple of notches.
It will take more than $200 to replace the clutch, so Alva´s graduation
may be ancient history before she gets her chance to be the first woman
in the village to drive a car.
Finally, we are happy to report that the music situation in the village,
which has annoyed us so much in the past, has improved. The loud speakers
atop the churches are quiet most of the time, and what we do hear seems
to be of better quality. Maybe it just sounds better at lower volumes.
At any rate I have vowed not to say any more about it.
Jan. 27, 2001
San Antonio Palopó, Guatemala
We've been in Guatemala almost a month now. Time seems to move at an
uneven pace here, sometimes dragging by and other times dissappearing
quickly behind us. Without a regular schedule days seem to blend into
For the villagers the market days define the week. The major market
in this area is on Friday, in Solola, up the hill from Panajachel, about
20 miles from San Antonio. The market day in Pana is Sunday. San Antonio
is developing a small weekly market on Monday. The weekly markets have
been for centuries the major form of commerce for the Mayas, who still
are the overwhelming majority outside the major metropolitan areas.
They pack the markets, wearing their brightly colored traditional outfits,
buying and selling an amazing variety and quantity of stuff, including
produce of every sort, small animals, furniture, raw materials for weaving
cloth and some weird things sometimes hard to identify.
Nearly all of the goods come and go via Guatemalan mass transit, which
consists of old school buses which look like they've been painted by
Gypsies on LSD. I once rode back from a market next to a guy who, for
40 miles or so, hung onto the hind leg of a piglet dangling out the
window. He must have been trying to avoid paying bus fare for the piglet.
I can't imagine there being any restriction regarding pigs on buses.
There are often chickens on the buses (which is why travelers here call
them "chicken buses.")
The markets are a sensory experience to say the least. I think many,
if not most, visitors to Guatemala would identify going to the markets
as the most memorable part of their trip here (maybe not the best part,
but certainly memorable.)
The kids and I went shopping for school clothes at the market in Solola
a couple of weeks ago. Whatever it cost me was well worth it in entertainment
value alone. Foreign visitors often feel guilty about bargaining with
the vendors, but here buying and selling is nearly a blood sport, and
visitors are amateurs.
It's inspirational to see the locals bargain. When we were school
shopping 13-year-old Rolando lead the attack, being the oldest. He would
force the vendor to name his price first (an important bit of strategy).
Then, regardless of what the vendor said, Angelina, Bruce and Yessica
would laugh and roll their eyes in stunned disbelief. I tried to be
supportive and follow my cues, but I am sure I cramped Rolando's style
by laughing at the kids instead of at the vendor. Still he did a great
job, especially since he knew he was bargaining with my money.
We are on our way south to do some traveling in areas we haven't been
to before. We aren't certain of our itinerary yet, but a sandy beach
sounds good. We may go down the Pacific coasts of Guatemala and El Salvador,
then across to the Caribbean beaches of Honduras. Hopefully the earthquakes
are over. Usually the only things one has to worry about when traveling
through these areas are hepatitis, cholera, amoebic dysentery and the
occasional robbery. With a few common-sense precautions the risk of
those things are pretty minimal. But there's not much one can do about
an earthquake. Generally, several small quakes such as the recent ones
are thought to lessen the risk of a big one. However there have been
warnings here in Guatemala to be prepared for another one in a few days.
We'll see. With any luck we'll be on a beach somewhere in a hammock.
Seems like the sensible place to be during a quake.
Faye and I left Guatemala a couple weeks ago and headed for El Salvador.
El Salvador has a reputation for being dangerous or dull (or perhaps
both.) During the civil war of the 80s travelers avoided it for obvious
reasons. After the government and the insurgent forces of the FMLN reached
an accommodation in '92 armed robberies increased sharply. There were
lots of unemployed ex-soldiers who still had their guns. However in
the past couple of years things have settled down and the country seems
to be about as safe as most countries in this area (and probably safer
than L.A. or New York.)
That still leaves its reputation for being dull. Travelers are rare
in El Salvador; it is a very small country, about 130 miles across the
long way, and it is easy to avoid. Most would rather spend their time
going places with more promising reputations. One of our considerations
when we were thinking about passing through the country was the recent
earthquakes. There was pretty big one on Jan. 13, as well as numerous
smaller ones since. More are predicted. But to our minds that just offset
the chances of it being dull.
One of the things El Salvador is known for is it's beaches, which
run the full length of it's southern border. Getting to a beach sounded
good to me. Faye is not as keen about beaches, but she wanted to see
the capital, San Salvador. Evidently some years ago she was in Salvador,
Brazil. She met someone there whose luggage ended up in San Salvador.
That seemed like as good a reason as any to go to San Salvador (though
now, having seen it, not quite good enough).
On the whole El Salvador was a pleasant surprise. It certainly doesn't
have the Mayan color and culture that Guatemala has. There are only
a handful of indigenous people in the country. But for the most part
El Salvador seems cleaner and more progressive than Guatemala, certainly
more westernized. Since the beginning of the year the U.S. dollar has
been legal tender, alongside the Colón. There are those that
don't think this is the kind of progress El Salvador needs, but it seems
to be a trend. Panama has used U.S. currency for years. Ecuador recently
legalized the use of dollars, and Guatemala will begin accepting dollars
in April. I won't go into the pros and cons of "dollarization,"
but among other things it seems to be a pragmatic recognition of the
power and influence of the U.S. in this part of the world. Another major
factor was the number of Salvadorans working in the U.S. and sending
money back to their family in El Salvador.
Crossing the border from Guatemala we had to work our way around a
caravan of 30 Airstreams on their way to Panama. That was a sight! We
caught a ride down the coast with a guy who was driving to the other
end of the country. The first evidence we saw of the earthquakes was
a boulder the size of a Volkswagon which had fallen down the mountain
and covered one side of the road. The next day in the paper we saw two
pictures of the boulder on the front page- before and after shots, or
rather before and during. The army came after we had passed and blew
it to pieces with dynamite. I'm not sure I would have wanted to be the
photographer who photographed the explosion. The picture looked like
he was pretty close.
We spent a couple of days at a secluded beach. We were looking for
a place to stay I knew about which had a pool and a lawn. But because
of my bad sense of direction we ended up someplace else. We got a room
with a family who lived next to the beach. It was pretty basic, but
we had fun playing with the kids. Something else that was pretty entertaining
were the pigs. Domestic pigs seem to be a pervasive element along the
Central American coast. It is a very strange thing. There were about
a dozen 2-week-old piglets scampering around like hyper-active puppies,
as well as a parrot and a white rabbit which hid in our room, escaping
the pigs and the dogs. It sounds like a zoo, but really it was pretty
relaxing. We all spent most of the day lying around in the shade. In
this tropical climate it is easy to see why not much gets done.
From there we went up into the mountains, to a town named Juayua.
(Don't ask me how to pronounce it- we never did get it right.) We didn't
realize it until we got there but it was one of the areas hardest hit
by the Jan. 13 earthquake. There were collapsed buildings all over town.
All of those we saw, however, were of adobe. Some were a hundred years
old. It doesn't take much to shake down an old adobe building. The newer
places made of concrete seemed undamaged. We spent one night there and
felt another small quake about three in the morning.
We left Juayua planning to spend the night in San Salvador. But we
saw enough of it from the bus window on the way to the terminal. It
didn't look quite as wretched as Guatemala City, but we felt certain
that if we kept going we'ed find someplace we liked better. We caught
a bus headed out of town towards the mountains in the northeastern part
of the country. We spent the night in San Miguel, the major city of
the area. It had sort of an odd "New/Old West" feel to it.
The banks all had signs saying "Please leave your guns and cell
phones with the guard at the door." We had the opportunity to visit
quite a few banks, looking for a place to cash a travelers check. Most
acted like they had never heard of travelers checks. It was further
evidence of how few travelers come to El Salvador.
After resolving the cash problem we pushed on up into the mountains
to the small town of San Francisco Gotera. Our guidebook dismissed it
as hot, humid, impoverished and unfriendly. We found none of those things
to be true. It was a quiet, clean little town, with a good public market.
The people were quite friendly, though a little surprised to see us.
We spent several nights there, using it as a base to explore the area
around it. We visited the town of Cacaopera, which is one of the small
pockets where there is a concentration of indigenous people. The Kakawira,
as they are known, never had the complex organization and strength of
their Mayan relatives in Guatemala. They continue to struggle to retain
their heritage and ethnic identity. In Cacaopera we met a Peace Corps
volunteer who gave us a great tour of the town. He took us down to the
Torolo River which was famous during the war as the demarcation between
the territories controlled by the FMLN guerrillas and the army.
That evening in Gotera we were invited for tea at the convent, run
by two nuns, one Irish and the other Welsh. The Welsh one has been in
El Salvador for 27 years and had some incredible stories about the war.
Gotera was the frontier of the army forces and there was a large barracks
beside the convent. Nearly every night the FMLN would attack it. She
said no one went out at night. The army did its best to cut off all
food and supplies to the territory controlled by the FMLN and a flood
of people poured into Gotera. The nuns did their best to feed nearly
15,000 refugees, sometimes in spite of army attempts to stop them.
After Gotera we headed farther north, to Perquin, which was the heart
of the FMLN territory. Today it is a tranquil little town, but it is
clear they still consider the FMLN heroes and martyrs. There is a museum
with an interesting collection of weapons and crude bombs, hand-drawn
maps showing plans of attack, and numerous photos and histories of the
fighters. Many of the guerrilla soldiers and even officers were women.
The war lasted twelve years. Considering what they had to work with,
and against, it is amazing that the insurgents got as far as they did.
Today the FMLN is a legitimate political party with representation throughout
Perquin was our last stop in El Salvador. The border crossing into
Honduras looked pretty close on our sketchy map. But it took an hour
and a half up a rough dirt road into the mountains, first in the back
of a cargo truck, then a pickup. Where are those tourist jitneys when
you need one? It took another hour and a half to reach the first town
in Honduras, Marcala. That was a couple days ago. We are now on the
Caribbean Coast of Honduras.
March 3, 2001
Eventually there comes a time on trips such as this one when you realize
that you've been on one bus too many. For me that epiphany usually strikes
when I am staring out a bus window at yet another dusty town made almost
entirely of concrete block and corrugated tin, and I can't remember
why I wanted to come here in the first place, and I know there are a
lot more bus rides between where I am and where I want to be. And usually
when this happens I am in Honduras.
The buses are no worse in Honduras than other places; in fact they
are usually half empty by Guatemalan standards. But most of the places
in Honduras just don't seem worth the trouble it takes to get there.
I guess I have a bad memory, but for some reason I don't remember that
until I am already in Honduras.
We entered Honduras through the back door, across the rugged and beautiful
mountains in the northeastern part of El Salvador. I'm not sure the
place where we crossed even has a name. The closest town on the Honduran
side was Marcala, about an hour and a half further on.
We had planned to explore the inland mountains of Honduras, but we
passed quickly through several forgettable towns, spent one night in
Honduras' second largest city, San Pedro Sula (memorable for all the
wrong reasons) and headed for the coastal town of Tela. We spent several
days there, mostly because we couldn't force ourselves to get back on
Tela is a relatively decent town. It was formerly the headquarters
of the United Fruit Company, during the days when the Central American
countries were called banana republics. (If any country still deserves
that epithet, and all it implies, it is Honduras).
Today Tela feels like a cross between an old western town and a decaying
Caribbean port. The United Fruit Company's old housing compound is still
the nicest part of town and functions as the Tela Mar Hotel.
From Tela we took a six-hour bus trip to Trujillo. We knew next to
nothing about Trujillo, but it looked on the map like it might be an
Trujillo is pretty much the end of the road as far as the Caribbean
Coast of Honduras goes. Beyond it, to the east, lies a vast roadless
area call the Mosquitia. Next to the Darian Gap, between Panama and
Colombia, the Mosquitia is the wildest most isolated area in Central
America. Very few travelers make it there.
Trujillo is a different story. Columbus landed near what is now Trujillo
on his fourth, and last trip to the New World in 1502. (Rumor has it
that when he left his last words to the locals were "Don't do anything
until I get back!" —which would explain a lot.) The town
was founded in 1525 and became the first Spanish capital of Honduras.
The Spanish lost it to British pirates a few times, and the town was
completely abandoned more than once.
American adventurer and wanna-be king William Walker made his last
stand in Trujillo in 1860. Walker was a former lawyer and journalist
from Tennessee. In 1853 he and a small band of followers tried to take
Baja California from the Spanish, and failed. In 1855 he and his men
attacked and gained control of Grenada, Nicaragua. Walker declared himself
president of Nicaragua, made English the official language and legalized
Not content with being president of just Nicaragua, he tried to conquer
the other Central American countries, but failed. He was arrested and
sent back to the U.S. I'm not sure anyone took him seriously, but he
certainly was an annoyance.
In 1860 he tried again, this time attacking the Spanish at Trujillo.
Once again he failed, but managed to surrender himself to British troops.
They promptly turned the pesky American over to the Spanish who executed
him by firing squad. His simple gravestone in Trujillo's old cemetery
reads rather tersely, "William Walker, shot, 12 September 1860."
The cemetery is overgrown and has been pretty well vandalized, but
there are other gravestones which hint at interesting stories that probably
no one remembers. There is a 20-year-old French woman who died in 1888,
a 24-year-old man from Montenegro, which is a tiny country south of
Serbia, who died in 1918; and a Palestinian who was buried in 1922,
probably a sailor from the markings on the gravestone. It would be interesting
to know what brought them to Trujillo and how they died so far from
Trujillo has deteriorated to become a rather shabby outpost known
more for its robberies than its history or its rather nice beaches (where
most of the robberies take place). It is the first place we've been
to in Central America where we didn't feel safe. We were advised not
to go out at night, so we didn't. But a couple staying the same place
as us were robbed at knifepoint on the beach in the middle of the day.
We were never threatened, but we heard enough stories to make us nervous.
One gets the feeling that sometime a few decades back, or more, the
tide turned in Trujillo. Or maybe the tide has always been against the
optimists who saw the natural beauty and thought it had potential. There
is evidence of more than one entrepreneur for whom things didn't work
out right. A private school was built but never used because the teachers
and the school sponsor couldn't agree on a salary. There is a large
luxury hotel which never has enough guests to justify its existence.
It is painted a tropical green and is known locally as "The Big
Green Money-laundering Machine."
Between the endemic corruption, the characteristics of the Honduran
people and perhaps even the steamy tropical climate, there's not much
chance of anything succeeding. (Though, as one frustrated American ex-patriate
living in Trujillo said, "It's not the heat, it's the stupidity.")
Our next destination was the island of Utila, one of the Bay Islands
which lie a few miles off the coast of Honduras. We took the bus back
along the coast and spent the night in the port city of La Ceiba, where
we were to catch a boat out to the island.
Ceiba is not too bad, as far as Central American cities go. It has
some modern conveniences to offset the typical inconveniences. But in
recent years a cocaine mafia has gained strength, and prostitutes prowl
The travelers hostel where we stayed is run by a 75-year-old Dutchman
who came to Honduras as a sailor on a banana boat 40 years ago. He had
already traveled all over the world by then. He married a Honduran woman,
traveled with her a bit more, then settled down. He has seen a lot of
He confirmed what we had heard about corruption in the country, "100%
top to bottom" as he put it. It seems to be a mentality that pervades
the culture. He said some German publication did a study and found that
Honduras was the third most corrupt country in the world, after Cameroon
and Paraguay. Afterwards an article was published in Honduras suggesting
that they shouldn't be content with just the bronze medal.
Consider also that Honduras is the second poorest country in Latin
America, after Haiti. The way things are going it is likely to stay
that way, in spite of all the international aid that flows in. Most
of the money goes into somebody's pockets.
The island life of Utila was a welcome change. Utila doesn't feel
like part of Honduras, and most of the islanders don't really consider
themselves Hondurans. There are a few Caribbean Blacks, and some Hispanics,
who are relatively recent arrivals. But most islanders are white, descendants
of English migrants who came from the Cayman Islands in the 1800s, and
of at least a few domesticated British pirates who settled on the Bay
Islands even earlier.
The Spanish gained control of the islands in 1861 through a treaty
with Great Britain (with some arm twisting by the U.S.) even though
the islanders themselves preferred to be affiliated with the English,
who controlled Belize at the time.
The islanders still consider themselves apart from the Hispanic mainland
and are more likely to have connections to the U.S. than to mainland
Honduras, particularly to the gulf coast of Louisiana where a lot of
the men have worked on oil rigs or cargo boats.
They can speak pretty straight Spanish and English when they need
to, but amongst themselves they speak a patois that is unintelligible
to outsiders. I was told it was mostly English, but except for a word
here and there you wouldn't know it. A few years ago on the neighboring
island of Roatan I was amused to see a sign on the door of a communal
outhouse which read "Knock me or shout," which I took to mean,
don't just barge in.
In recent years Utila has become well known for its scuba diving schools.
Evidently it is the cheapest place in the world to get certified. We
didn't go diving, but rented some snorkeling gear. There are shallow
coral reefs around the island and with all the brightly colored fish
it is like being in a tropical aquarium.
I was last on Utila about six years ago, and if things change as much
in the next few years as they have in the last six Utila will soon no
longer be the laid back island paradise it has been. Locals are selling
out to newcomers willing to pay astounding prices and new houses are
being built all over. At least two U.S.-based companies are developing
resort communities on previously uninhabited parts of the island. Some
lots are selling for more than $100,000.
It may someday become yet another Caribbean resort island overrun
with wealthy vacationers and retirees. On the other hand the Honduran
government may someday remember that it owns the islands and make all
those investors wish they had never heard of Honduras. So far Utila
is still a bargain with plenty of $5 a night rooms.
We left the island with some reluctance after about a week and returned
to the mainland, dreading the bus rides once again. Our last stop in
Honduras was Copán, the site of some Mayan ruins. Copan was occupied
between about 400-800 A.D. Other than that I won't get into the history
of the place. I'm not very interested in the old Mayas. Besides I've
included too many history lessons already.
There is a nice little town about a mile from the ruins which caters
to visitors. In recent years, as Central America has become tamer, more
affluent tourists have come to Copán, and other places, and prices
have risen accordingly. Services aren't necessarily any better and often
tourists are charged double or more what locals pay. I think the Hondurans
see it as another form of foreign aid.
Even though Honduras doesn't officially use U.S. dollars (yet), in
areas that attract tourists prices are often given in dollars, and are
accepted for purchases. For budget travelers like ourselves that's a
bad sign. Another bad sign is when we see wrinkled white folks in tour
buses showing up the same places we go. Time to move on.
We've got a little more than two weeks left of our trip and plan to
spend them in San Antonio, back in Guatemala. I'll try to write once
more before we leave.
March 21, 2001
San Antonio Palopó, Guatemala
We returned to our little place in San Antonio a couple of weeks ago,
tired and annoyed from our trip through Honduras. We arrived to find
a huge, but tidy, hole dug in our courtyard. (Actually, "courtyard"
is a rather pretentious name for the dirt area in front of our room,
bounded by small buildings on three sides and a corrugated tin fence
on the fourth.)
Anyway, as usual Petrona, our landlady, took the money we had paid
her for rent and had forged ahead with "improvements" to the
place. The hole was about 8 feet square and probably 16 feet deep. At
first I couldn't figure out what it could be for. I asked Petrona whether
she was building a swimming pool. But it turned out to be a septic tank,
San Antonio style.
The hole was very nice, with square corners and absolutely vertical
sides. A guy was building a concrete and rock wall up each side, about
a foot thick.
Over the next several days men trudged up our stairs carrying huge
rocks on their backs, usually two at a time, each weighing 60-70 pounds.
They had to carry them about a quarter of a mile, and finally up the
steps to our courtyard. For each trip they earned about 13 cents.
There was one guy who worked one evening until after dark. I was told
he planned to start again the next morning at five o'clock. I got up
at five to unlock the door at the bottom of the stairs, but he never
showed up. Petrona said later that he had gotten drunk instead. Normally
I don't have much sympathy for the drunks around here, but in this case
I thought it sounded like a reasonable thing. I don't think I'd want
to face carrying rocks at five in the morning. If I ever wake up some
morning facing a day that doesn't look like it is going to be much fun,
I'm going to remember those guys hauling rocks.
Up until recently nobody here had running water and the toilets were
pretty much just crude outhouses over a large hole. There have to be
a couple thousand of these built into the hillside that San Antonio
sits on. I don't like to think about this system very much, but it seems
to work OK.
Now with more places getting running water, the more progressive folks,
such as Petrona, are putting in showers and even flush toilets. (A real
toilet is next on the list of improvements! Can it get much better?)
Petrona had built a shower earlier this year, which we were very glad
for. But the drain seemed to be purely decorative. There wasn't anywhere
for the water to go. So, this "septic tank" is supposed to
solve that problem.
Obviously it isn't a good idea to fill up the pit privys with water.
But as far as I can tell, the septic tank that Petrona is building is
just a bigger hole lined with a rock wall. I know how a septic tank
is supposed to work and this one seems to be missing an important element,
the leach field. The water eventually has to go somewhere. We'll see...
Plumbing is near the top of a long list of things that these people
don't have a good grasp of. Something else pretty high up that list
is auto mechanics.
A while back I wrote about my efforts to get Don Pablo's mini-van
running. I got it running, but getting it rolling was a bigger problem
since the clutch was frozen to the flywheel.
I won't go into all the gory details, but shortly before we left on
our El Salvador/Honduras trip Don Pablo found some Guatemalan meatball
mechanic who somehow broke apart the clutch and flywheel, replaced the
spark plugs and assured him that if the car wasn't as good as new it
was at least as good as it was going to get.
Unfortunately this led to some giddy optimism on the part of Don Pablo
and poor judgment on mine which lead to a road trip to Xela, about 100
miles away, with his wife and three of their kids. It was an adventure
to say the least.
The car wasn't registered and I didn't have my drivers license, so
we had to evade police checkpoints. (I was stopped only once, for going
the wrong way on a one-way street. I did the "confused Gringo"
bit, said sorry and took off. The cops were going the right way and
it didn't look to me like they felt like turning around to chase me.)
On the way there, when the car was running relatively well Don Pablo
sat proudly on the seat beside me, like a king in his chariot. But later,
after numerous breakdowns turned the one-day trip into two days, he
huddled in the back seat with his wife and kids, who all looked like
they were ready for the adventure to be over. That was understandable
since they had slept in the car the night before. I had managed to get
a bed, but I wasn't too happy either, and far past feeling sorry for
Don Pablo and his car problems.
We limped back the afternoon of the second day, and I've never been
so happy to see San Antonio. I parked it in front of his house, right
where it was before I got involved. I tried to explain how a car works,
and all the things he was going to have to do to get it running right.
But he just doesn't get it. To him a car is a miracle, and running with
worn or broken parts seems only slightly more miraculous than running
I don't know how long the car will sit there this time. I don't care.
Somebody once said "No good deed goes unpunished." I'll try
to remember that.
We'll be leaving Guatemala in a couple of days. We've said our usual
sad good-byes to family and friends. We've made some new friends this
year, and some old friends had a baby who, I'm sure, will grow up as
fast as the other children we know here, reminding us how quickly time
We are looking forward to getting back to the comforts of civilization
and a change of clothes. I once said to an American woman who lives
in Guatemala most of the year that I was always happy to come to Guatemala,
but when it was time to go home I was happy to leave. She said "Sounds
like you're always happy." I guess that is a good way of looking
at it. It is all a matter of perspective.
That's it for this year............. Jim and Faye