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,