This town is designed for walking. Within the length of a city block from my house are four pulperias. They sell everything from toilet paper to packaged cookies to produce to used clothes. Within a one mile radius are scads more pulperias and hardware stores, used clothing stores, produce stands, bakeries, and stalls that sell tacos and baleadas, underwear, watches, and fans, pharmacies, restaurants, cafes, clinics, churches, and two supermarkets. New stands appear every day. The only parking lot is that of the new supermarket, and while the store is crowded inside, the lot is mostly empty.
Until I reach the commercial area with its two paved parallel streets, I can walk anywhere in the road with little fear of being squashed by cars. At times this is required because a portion of the dirt and rock road is filled with a large puddle or is too rocky or uneven. The road isn’t much wider than a car, so there really isn’t any side to keep to. The street can be noisy, but it’s usually the noise of conversation, music, kids yelling, and roosters proclaiming some edict or other. Nothing rushes by faster than I could run, except a mountain bike braving the downward rocky slope. Cars that do pass barely crawl above 5 mph because the road is so uneven.
Everything is snug and huddled close. The houses are within speaking distance. The tallest building has two stories.
For while I’ve been gnawing on why I don’t mind walking to the supermarket everyday but would groan at the thought of doing that back in Portland, where the distance between house and grocery is comparable. I live in a “walkable” neighborhood, which in the US means there are sidewalks on most of the streets and a grocery store within a mile of my house. But it’s noisy. I have to stand at stop signs to wait for car (and bike) traffic to pass. The road is much wider than speaking distance and the buildings tall. It’s neat, contained, and no doubt all regulated by some sort of rule. And while I could walk in the middle of many of the side streets, I haven’t the desire since it all is black asphalt, without the proximity of trees, houses, any sort of character. After all, they are often wide enough to fit two cars, with more cars parked along the side of the road. I’m a dwarfed speck amidst the hubbub of machines, the shadows of apartment buildings. People walk protected in a self-contained armor of haste, preoccupation, cell phone, and distance. Doors are very much closed and sit separate from the street. Walkability is relative.
Here, every window has bars and houses sit behind barriers of some sort, yet the door might be only a curtain, laundry hangs in the yard, people are in the doorway or at the gate or hanging that laundry. The doorway is open and someone is watching television. It’s open, and yes that can be annoying when that means having those eyes on me, but often if I look up the eyes won’t shy away. Maybe they’ll smile or not.
[I interrupted this entry to write: Am I really writing about walking? Maybe, again, I’m really writing about fitting in? I look at everything through the lens of my previous life; objectivity is non-existent, in the end.]
I am also cloaked in a silence that comes with the language barrier. I don’t have to fear being spoken to by a familiar face, beyond a greeting, because s/he knows I won’t understand. Back home, I would cross the street, turn a corner to avoid an acquaintance if I wasn’t feeling capable of awkward small talk. Here, that acquaintance and I warmly—at least on my side—acknowledge each other’s existence and then move along, little risk of small talk.
I am in no way idealizing the roads, not that this is really a post about them, is it? The roads are covered in trash. During a heavy rain, the bottom of our road floods and unless I want to walk several additional blocks to circumvent the pond, the only passage is through and, depending on the length of the rain, the water and other muck may reach knee height. Navigating the holes and rocks makes for moderate ankle-twisting ambulation or head- and rib-knocking driving/riding. The roads have been “repaired” since I’ve been here, meaning that piles of dirt were spread to fill the holes. Gradually, the heavy rains are exposing the gaps and large rocks. On other roads, gravel is used to fill the same areas over and over. Some kids miss school on rainier days. Our class trip to San Pedro was cancelled due to mudslides. The highway, with its lack of lights and many holes, is teeth clenching at night as cars swerve across the obstacle course .
I assume that poverty prevents car ownership and that many people would prefer to have a car. Or would they? Moto-taxis go anywhere within town for ten lempiras (USD 0.50) and bus connections take a person just about anywhere in the country. I’ve seen women unloading tuk-tuks stuffed with plantain-laden branches and tuk-tuks transporting construction equipment, the length of the wood or metal bars three times that of the little three-wheeler. And there is nothing quite like riding in a shared vehicle. A van that claims to seat ten will easily fit twenty-five if you leave the sliding door open so that passengers can grip the roof and stand on the runners. One of my students balanced three other boys on his bike and rode them all to football practice. People make do quite well, as you do when you have to. When you don’t have to…everything and everyone separates, I imagine.
So what is this post really about? I’ve touched on cars, roads, walking, poverty, language barriers. Maybe it’s about the pleasures—to an introverted outsider—of a smaller (adjective chosen without the slightest condescension and with full awareness of how much could change with improved technology and infrastructure) world. Whenever I return to something that resembles my previous life, I have no doubt I will miss the community and quiet and coziness of a walk down the road.
P.S. This may be the only time I say that the town is quiet. In most other ways, it is anything but.