Copán: Ruins! Parades! Hot Springs! Hammock!

It’s been a long two weeks since lovely Copán, since reading in a hammock while the rain thunders on the tin roof, since eating a slice of flan de cafe – que rico!, since the significant decrease in my stress levels.

GargoyleThis will sound strange, but my favorite part of the Ruins is the macaws. Near Copán is a macaw rehabilitation center. Once the birds are healthy enough to start being reintegrated into the wild, they are brought to the Ruins and supplied with food, sheltered perches, and freedom to explore the park. The birds’ plumage is early Technicolor, like Wizard of Oz or Oklahoma! The reds and yellows and greens pop like freshly applied paint in an Andy Warhol painting. The birds swoop and soar between the trees. They screech loudly and repeatedly. At one point we are in the middle of a group chatting from the depths of the tall trees. Two birds on a branch are fighting or flirting. There are no cages, no signs, only trees, noise, and these birds. They are fantastic, vibrant, and this is definitely one of those Mr. Macaw, I’m not in Kansas anymore moments.

The ideal way of experiencing the Ruins must be with a guide, because while there are signs explaining the ages of the statuary and pyramids (600 A.D. onward), their context is a cipher. That’s not to say I am not awed by the structures, only that I don’t have enough context to fully appreciate them. I have to admit I have a difficult time in museums. I often need a story, not just the facts, to fully appreciate the artistry. I’m a little embarrassed of this failing as a semi-educated person. I will return to Copán in the spring and will definitely hire a guide to explain just what that tortoise means and the pyramids and the symbols on the altars.

Monday starts with chasing the Independence Day parade(s), because I love marching bands. The sound and feeling of thundering drums combined with thick brass—forget the winds—gives me chills and teary eyes. In 2000 (according to IMDb), a small movie called Our Song, about three Brooklyn girls in a high school marching band, came out. It opened with the band playing and I immediately teared up. Between the drums and bittersweet story of friendship, my eyes were not often dry. There’s a band called The Last Regiment of Syncopated Drummers in Portland that I fantasize about joining.

Lovely ladyWe stand in the town square crowded with food vendors, kids in school and band uniforms, occasional tourists, and a young woman with a golden fan headdress topped with dried grasses and long woven skirt of the same dried grasses, surrounded by people with cameraphones. It’s unclear if we’ve missed everything. Then the drums and glockenspiels start at the opposite end of the square. The sidewalks fill with onlookers. I stand on a wall, unable to see anything (the visual element seems important for the chills), but ten minutes in, drums start on another side of the square. I dash over and have a front row view of the drummers, glockenspiels, and kids with pom-pons and banners expressing peace, god, love, and history. My nose tingles and weeping beckons, but I hold it in. Once that section of the parade moves on, another band starts at a third side of the square. I never do figure out if the parade has any official beginning, because as soon as one section of it ends, another section starts elsewhere, this time a block in the opposite direction. The parade is modest, with the occasional vaquero or traditional dress outfit, but mostly school uniforms and banners. So many schools for such a small town, at least 15, and the bilingual school is so much larger than CBS…and the female volunteers teachers are mostly tall, strong, and blond—is this a requirement? There is a float of Noah’s Ark and a crowd of kids with Halloween masks. Many of the kids wear sunglasses, lending a secret agent or too cool for school feeling to the whole event. I lose my fellow volunteers early on. A whisper wonders if they might worry and try to call my phone, left behind in the room, but I just don’t care. This is for me.

The final adventure of our trip takes us to the Luna Jaguar Hot Springs, a mostly beautiful and bumpy hour ride away on a rain-soaked mattress in the back of a truck, where Eza and I attract quite a bit of attention and whistles. I mentioned earlier not really fitting in with my co-volunteers. One-on-one, conversations about topics other than drinking or mocking classmates from high school can take place.

hot springsI’ve always wanted to go to a hot spring. There are several near Portland, but…it’s just never happened. For some reason the adventures close to home rarely are explored. I can’t imagine any spring would ever compare to this, however, and, again, my descriptive abilities are challenged. It is raining hard. We are lead over a swiftly moving river across an occasionally slippery rope and plank bridge into dense forest. We pass through a narrow tunnel and to the right is a cascade of small pools. The path winds around and there are yet more pools alongside a stream. The pools are cloudy and surrounded with flat rocks. After a brief tour and explanation of the pools’ temperatures, we strip down into bathing suits—I am the only one without a bikini—and venture back down the stony path to the first spring, and then the second, and third, and beneath a warm waterfall, only to climb higher until we’re level with the top of a steaming waterfall. The rain has cooled the air so sitting in warm-to-hot pools of water in a humid environment is thoroughly pleasant, romantic, and I’m ready to move in. And it is so quiet aside from the rushing water; Honduras is not a quiet country. Until the very end, we are the only visitors. After at least an hour we conclude at that cascade of small pools. Each is warmer than the next until we reach the final, largest, and hottest pool of them all, too hot for everyone but me. I relish hot baths, especially in the winter when my fingers and toes are often numb and swollen, and if I miss any luxury on my adventure down here, it’s reading in a hot bath with a book. I soak and float, and by this time my feet, all of our feet, are cleaner than they have been in a month. Actually, the final pool is a cold water pool, and I do dare to slide my full body in , and it feels as if fine bristled brushes are pressed against my skin and my body were poured lead. I laugh.

The other delights of Copán are small. I taste genuine pupusas, a type of cornflour pancake filled with cheese, beans, and/or meat, a foodstuff previously eaten only at home through the efforts of my unskilled hands; drink a decaffeinated (bad tummy) espresso; and spend several hours with a book (Cloudstreet by Tim Winton, and you should read it right now) in a rooftop hammock. I meet an Australian traveler who asks me questions, rather than the interest being on only my side (see co-volunteers). Also, speaking of whiteness, since the residents are used to tourists, there is much less gawking and catcalling. I see white tourists and Asian tourists. And we walk anywhere comfortably, without warnings of danger. The views from the hills of the city are spectacular.

For these days I’ve done my best to bury school in a dusty corner of my mind, yet it unearths, of course. We leave Tuesday morning, with minimal transportation drama. Then it is back to lesson planning and stressing over teaching the formation of the universe.

As I write this entry, the pleasures of Copán are difficult to comprehend, buried as I am in the dramas of school. I look forward to the next break, at the end of October.



P.S. I love you, Erpie!


Hotel porch

Copán: Horses! Money! Exploitation!

Remember the guy that lead us from the bus to our hotel? Vee decides to hire him for a two hour horseback ride through the Ruins, another one of his businesses. Now, my guidebook said that we would be mobbed by men who would try to “sell us overpriced horseback rides,” and I don’t want to be a Naive White Person Who Gets Ripped Off. Plus, I distrust anyone who aggressively tries to sell me something, maybe because I’m so non-agressive or because I can’t think rationally under pressure. But I agree to go along in the spirit of adventure, and we pay half of the fee that night. To reassure myself that this isn’t stupid, I reason that the manager and our co-volunteers saw us with this guy, who I’ll call Mr. G, so it is unlikely that anything horrible will happen.

Let’s just say Mr. G gets a little creepy. We agree to meet at 9 a.m. When we go down for breakfast the next morning, he is in the lobby. After breakfast, we wander around the town. He appears by our side and asks if we need a tour. At 8:45, when we return to the hotel and are admiring the view from our floor, he appears behind us, indicating it’s time to go. If Vee had decided to back out of the trip then, I wouldn’t have minded. Instead, we shoo him away, brush our teeth, then meet him at the appointed time. Surprisingly, he doesn’t ask for the rest of his fee right away. He waits until we are in the crowded town square, a most awkward time to be waving around our lempiras. Since he can’t break our bills, he agrees to accept fifty lempiras until after the ride, though that doesn’t make sense, because our bills won’t get any smaller during the ride, it’s how I remember it. We walk past the edge of town, where the cobblestones turn to dust, and I feel very white and foolish and am being stared at by a truckful of people. We approach three horses tied to a fence. A man, who I assume owns the horses and is paid off by Mr. G, chooses two and helps us mount. My feet aren’t too snug in the stirrups. My rope reins are too short. Off we go.

The ride—except for the part where Mr. G whistles to make my horse go into a trot, which is rather uncomfortable if the stirrups are too long for your short legs, and, actually, to be honest, it’s uncomfortable when you haven’t ridden a horse for 20 years—is lovely. It’s along the Copán River, thick, wild, and brown from the storm the previous night. The path is mostly deserted, tree-lined, and muddy. We pass bare tomato fields, feed grass fields, and cows. Vee is ecstatic. She loves horses and breaks into a gallop, far from my slow mount, often. That’s probably the best part of doing an off the grid horse tour—no rules. At one point Mr. G waves me off my horse and races with Vee. He obviously loves horses. My guess is that that is what he’d rather be doing, instead of giving white people horseback rides and scrambling around to make a living. But that’s just a guess.

Mr. G’s English is good enough, but not overly so, and if I were a suspicious person, I’d wonder if that is intentional. It’s never clear where exactly the “tour” ends. Initially it sounded like a horse ride through the Ruins. Then it was unclear if we would even get to the Ruins or if he would just point us in the right direction. Maybe he needs to work on his prepositions of place. In the end, the tour stops awkwardly in a field by a gas station, about a hundred feet past a security check point, through which Vee galloped, wishing the guards a “Buenos días.” We dismount, I wash the smashed banana-covered interior of my bag, and we walk to the entrance to the park. I am eager to ditch Mr. G at this point. If he had his way, however, we would hire his brother as our guide through the Ruins. Or we would hire him to give us a tour of the town tomorrow. Instead, we pay him the remaining fee, he requests a tip, and our tip is so poor, in his opinion, that we never see him again. And that leads me into another topic.

I’m not sure which bothers me more, being taken advantage of or not knowing I’m being taken advantage of. Because I’m white, there is an expectation here that I’m rich. Comparatively, I am. Being (over)charged 20 lempiras (US$1) instead of 10 for a mototaxi ride has no real effect on my wallet. The expensive breakfast I ate Monday cost less than US$8. The extremely modest savings that have afforded me this volunteer opportunity and my travels are more than most Hondurans earn in three years. In the States, I have a smartphone, internet service, and live in a house (shared) with running water, electricity, a backyard, and a refrigerator full of food. Those things make me rich here, and I don’t imagine it would translate if I explained that in the States, I’m far from rich. I could never have a vacation comparable to Copán. I was without healthcare for several years until Obamacare passed. I do ride a bike for health and environmental reasons, but I really couldn’t afford a car. And let’s just say that most of my clothes are worn out enough that it’s no problem for the colors to be washed with the whites. None of that matters, though, because as little as I might think I have, the people here and in many places, including the States, have even less.

World economics are anything but fair. I have benefited from their poverty and exploitation, so why shouldn’t people here be tempted to overcharge me, and why should I mind? Is it that the perspective of myself as a walking wallet makes me question my responsibility toward the world, especially as a U.S. citizen? My country is rich in part because it exploits others. It allows its businesses to exploit others, or The Others, the brown people, if you will. If I were a better blogger I would cite articles and facts here (smallpox blankets, anyone?), but do I really need to? This statement should not be in question. (If you, dear reader, want some facts thrown at you, just let me know in a comment or email.) While I did earn the money that brought me here, and my work was good and honest, it isn’t completely clean. I know and I’m not clean. I’m trying to figure this out, right here, on this screen you’re reading. I understand, even appreciate, the motivation to look at me as a cash machine, and part of me doesn’t understand why I don’t tell them, the anonymous faceless “them” of the world, to take it all. No, that wouldn’t do anything, really. That’s not how a lasting change will occur, but it would be a temporary relief, a bandage over my guilt, a luxurious feeling that is pretty useless to anyone.

While I suspect I’m being overcharged in certain circumstances in Copán, the awareness doesn’t draw emotion until the other volunteers point it out. They mention how they call out the mototaxi drivers and fruit vendors on their “steep” pricing (in quotes because everything, unless it’s imported, is cheaper here and I find it difficult to call anything expensive). While I had noticed the higher prices, I attributed them to Copán’s higher cost of living. It was then I felt shame, not from paying higher prices, but being told I should be upset about it. So when I went to the fruit vendor, I named my price, a lower one than what I had previously been charged, and she accepted. What did that save me? US$0.25. Maybe being overcharged doesn’t bother me. Maybe it’s being caught acting like an unsavvy traveler, which I am, but which, in actuality, in my true self, I don’t much care about. Not today, anyway.

Okay, here is the one overpricing that did upset me: we were told our room was US$11 each per night. Vee and I paid this the first two nights. Then, on the last night, I paid my share and the attendant, the mother of the manager, I presume, said we owed only US$1 more, not US$11 more. Apparently we had been charged almost double the standard rate our first two nights. That seems a bit egregious.

Also, I will say that being taken advantage of in my temporary home town does bother me because all the residents know that white people here are either Mormons or volunteers…and we’re obviously not Mormons!

And now I leave you with these deep thoughts. I’m sure you thought vacation time meant lighthearted, but that is just not my style. More Copan—the Ruins, the parade, the hot springs!—soon,


Las Ruinas

Copán! Getting there

In honor of Independence Day, school is closed from Monday – Wednesday. Five day weekend = travel! Seven of us decide to venture to Copán Ruinas, the site of Mayan ruins and most popular tourist destination in Honduras.

After a long Friday evening of drinking, most of the volunteers are not ready for travel at the agreed upon time of 8 a.m. Vee and I, two newbies desirous of adventuring as soon as possible and annoyed by our cohorts’ irresponsibility and rudeness, decide to attempt the journey solo. I purchase a stack of corn tortillas to ensure my fortification during the journey. Thus begins my life on the edge, because bus travel is different here.

New public transportation systems make me nervous, even in the States. When I first lived in New York City, for college, I chose to walk 40 blocks rather than try the subway system. What if the ticket machines were complicated? How would I find the right platform or know where to get off? What if I got lost? In Portland, despite many years of experience with the transportation system, when going some place new, and especially at night, I stare out the window, slightly breathless, tracking the street signs just in case my stop isn’t called or following my GPS dot on Google Maps. Now, NYC has large signs announcing each stop and clear maps that explain where each train goes; it’s easy to master. Portland has a comprehensive map and bus/train identification system, street signs, and I can always ask the driver to announce my stop. Here, there are no street signs or marked stops, buses are privately run with unclear, to a neophyte, routes, and there is no consistent payment scale. Some buses are large school buses, the (de)famed chicken buses, while others are small minivans known as busitos. Plus, my Spanish, well, is pretty bad. Such details do not inspire confidence. But, armed with the name, if not location, of the town, my guidebook, rumor of a direct bus, and a vague emergency plan, we set off.

I ask a young woman who runs a small shop, and who for some reason remembers my name, where the bus to Copán stops. She glances at her friend, a little uncertain, and they tell me to go to La Avenida Salida. Okay! That’s one step closer. I assume she means the street corner that is often crowded in the early mornings with bus commuters. We stand. I’m all for hanging out, confident we’ll know the bus. It’ll say “Copan,” right? Vee is less confident and asks at an eatery when the bus stops. Oh, it doesn’t stop there but at the highway. Okay! So now we’re at the highway with a bunch of other potential passengers but still uncertain as to the existence or arrival of this direct bus to Copán. I attempt some Spanish. A cluster follows our interaction closely. My responder, according to Vee, either says we just missed the bus or that there is no direct bus. We sit and consult the guidebook.  There are supposedly two bus lines that go to Las Ruinas. A man approaches us. Do we want Las Ruinas? If so, the next direct bus arrives at 11 a.m. I think he also offers to take us there. We’re approached by a young boy. The men at the food stand stare. We’re getting way too much attention. And it’s only 9 a.m. But then we see the Mormon missionaries, from El Salvador and Idaho. They tell us there is no direct bus and that we have to switch in La Entrada. Crap. They board their busito for the next town over and we plan. Again, we consult the guidebook. Buses pass. La Entrada is on the way to and a town called Santa Rosa appears to be close to Las Ruinas. Rather than wait for the possibly nonexistent direct bus, we’ll take the next one to La Entrada or Santa Rosa. Ah ha! Santa Rosa it is.

It’s a chicken bus and we’re standing. We’ll be standing for the next hour and a half as the wrangler stuffs people into the bus. The wrangler insists on putting my backpack on the inside overhead rack. Shit. That was not expected and my passport and extra money are in there.  Well, okay, I’ve got a copy of my passport somewhere and the money is just…money. I’ll watch my pack. Despite this surprise, the wrangler puts me at ease. He is quick and attentive. He remembers passengers and their stops. He does his job of shoving us into this tube well.Not only is there standing in the aisle, there is standing butt to butt with people in the aisle. We ride, and we ride, and it’s thrilling that we’re off, by ourselves, and things are going relatively smoothly. And there’s the beautiful, lush, lovely, verdant, untamed countryside passing by. About an hour and a half in, a seat frees. I stare out the window. The view doesn’t get boring. At major stops, vendors approach the windows with soda, candy, fried foods. They crowd the aisle of the bus, shoving these in our faces. It is loud and chaotic. Some stops are quick, others long, but there are many. It is at least three hours until we arrive in Santa Rosa de Copán.

Santa Rosa is the terminus of our current line. We step off and are swarmed by wranglers for other bus lines. They follow us. They shout in our faces. Vee and I surge out of this mass of noise and people. We cross the highway to find a place to breathe and plan. I need to pee; she needs a bandage. Her bandage comes easily; the bathroom…is a fluke. We step into a building that might be a hotel or shopping center. Vee suggests we ask the reception. We stand there, waiting for an attendant to be free, and a man sitting in what we think is the waiting area, in unaccented English asks, “What do you need?” Startled, I say, “The bathroom.” He points to a door. Success!

I won’t detail what happens next in Santa Rosa, but in summary a confusing conversation with an attendant ensues, we leave, a wrangler approaches Vee, and we follow him to a busito to Las Ruinas. Again, the lovely countryside, which truly defies my abilities of description, and also softer seats divert us. But the map was misleading. Actually, Santa Rosa is quite far from Las Ruinas. We really should have switched at La Entrada, but we were too comfortable at the time. This busito stops every few feet, or at least in every tiny village, and there are more switchbacks on this highway than a snake breakdancing. Our asses hurt, we’ve been traveling for several hours, and the blaring music – are we at a disco? – is monotonous. The thrill of adventure is replaced with concern that we will not arrive before dark.

But we do, around 5 p.m., and we are now swarmed with taxi drivers and hotel wranglers. Fortunately, we already know what we want; a co-volunteer recommended Hotel Mar Jenny. A man, coincidentally the wrangler for Mar Jenny (or a wrangler for many hotels), approaches and offers to guide us. We follow him up hilly, multi-colored cobblestone streets. In the twilight, I can tell this is no small town outside of San Pedro Sula. There is money here. He shows us to a room, which surprisingly has its own bathroom, and, did I hear correctly? hot water. It’s clean; we take it. All for USD$11 each a night. (Which we later learn is a rip-off, but more later.)

As we confirm with the front desk that we will take the room, the proprietress asks if we are part of a group. If so, our friends are already here. Yes, those hungover friends caught the direct line and beat us. Vee and I stare at each other. Our pact had been to not mention our long journey, but now we can’t avoid it. They will fuss and give us unrequested “should have dones.” But, you know, I’m really proud of us. I had a blast. This is what my trip is about – diving in, messing up, and finding a way to enjoy it.

More later,