Thursday, April 28, 2011

Honduran and Nicaraguan Travel Journal

Writer's Note:
This (very long) blog post was all written between April 16-28 while traveling to Honduras and Guatemala. Accompanying pictures were also taken on said trip. It's really long. Enjoy though.

We drink it, shower in it, wash dishes with it, waste it, conserve it, pollute it, clean it, curse it, and worship it. Water has brought the great civilizations to power and left others in Atlantian ruin. A sprinkle, drizzle, shower, downpour, squall, storm, hurricane, monsoon. Everywhere we see it and it is the topic of every conversation. Sure is hot, isn’t it? Hasn’t rained in a while. Those clouds look menacing. We haven’t seen the sun in six days!

So yes, we acknowledge water and its important existence everyday. We, the privileged few who sit and can casually read a blog with free time at an expensive computer connected to an unfathomable web of information. Do we appreciate as much as some people? I don’t imagine you have to walk six miles a day to fill up a bucket at a possibly contaminated well in order for your family to drink. No, I don’t either. But when can you can totally forget about all the uses of water, the headaches and hastles, and simply consider it, as it. As water.

To get from Punta Gorda to Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, or other points south, two options present themselves. One is to travel up to Belmopan, west to Guatemala, then to other locals. Option two is to hop on a water taxi and take an hour and a half ride across the Gulf of Honduras to Puerto Barrior, Guatemala. Once the boat departs PG, recognizable land forms quickly disappear into haze. It was then I realized, for the first time, how completely insane the ocean is. I’m floating on trillions of galleons of water and not just that, I’m floating on top of the home of millions of beings. On land, we’re kings of the castle. We’ve tamed animals, carved cities into rock, and harvested the bounty of the plants. What do we have on the ocean? Sure, fishermen pull creatures up for us to enjoy battered and fried, but how many times do we hear of them coming back with small catches? Not coming back at all? When we enter the world of the sea, it is no longer the planet we are familiar with. No longer do I feel in control. My mortality is far more at risk in the water than on land. We can calculate how far away stars are that appear as tiny pinpoints of light, but no one knows how many sharks are in the ocean? How many species of fish? The locations of shipwrecks? Bouncing over these waves, far from any comforting plant, or even sand dune, all this hit home. The sea is big. Really big. Unfathomably unfathomable. And guess what? It’s only a bit of water. We have water figured out, right?
Maybe not.

Making sense of senses
“Hey, there’s the place the hostel told us to eat,” Al said, pointing across the street.
We looked over there, then Christin motioned to our left.
“Let’s check out the mall. We can just walk in and see what’s going on. I haven’t seen a mall in a while.”
Sounds good to me, that fast food place doesn’t look all that special.
“I’m down with the mall,” I agree, “but I haven’t really eaten anything for the past twelve hours, so let’s find something fast.”
Al and Christin murmured in agreement to this hunger sentiment as we walked toward the very large building.
“Is that an Applebees?”
No way. “Holy crap, it is!” This is weird. I haven’t seen an American chain since leaving Boston August 1. Applebees. I forgot they even existed. McDonalds and Burger Kind, sure. But Applebees.
We pushed through the big doors and found ourselves in a different world. I haven’t felt underdressed in Central America, but for some reason, my faded Jimmy Hendrix t-shirt from high school and khaki pants aren’t cutting it. Polos, graphic tees, chains, skinny jeans. Fashion. Weird. I didn’t expect this in Honduras.
“An escalator! I don’t know about you guys, but I’m down for riding this all night.”
Luckily the girls shared my enthusiasm for the incredible moving stairs and we rode up in style. At the top, grinning at the magnitude of the accomplishment, I looked around and discovered where we were: the food court. My God. Applebees was only the beginning. There were more people here than the entirety of Punta Gorda. McDonalds. Pizza Hut. KFC. Quiznos. Dunkin Donuts. Dunkin Donuts!!! What is this place?! A TV, 20ft high, 30ft wide, playing a MLS soccer game. Blackberries and Iphones.

mmmmmm, Quiznos


After twenty minutes of open mouthed wandering, we settled on Quiznos. A glorious birthday dinner. Pepsi from a soda fountain to wash the sandwich down. The girls treated me to dessert at Dunks/Baskins Robins. Nothing like donuts and ice cream.
It was an overload. I was not prepared for this environment. Fashionable youth. Air conditioning. Fast food joints lit up by neon glory with ladies giving out Asian style chicken. This was America in my mind, not Honduras. Systems overload.


Contrast this with Esquias. From Sand Pedro Sula, the host of said mall, it was a three hour bus ride down the highway, then another three hours in a school bus winding through dusty roads cut through pine forests and mountain valleys.
Quiet. That’s what I found here. It is strange to be away from the ocean sounds and local birds and snippets of Creole. It’s refreshing. Esquias is an affluent town, surrounded by the wealth of coffee that grows abundantly on the cool slopes of this hilly country.

Winding roads

From miles away, the imposing white fa├žade of the 1700s era church can be seen, dominating the town. Around the place of worship, small cobblestone and cement streets cut through the trees and yards. It is a peaceful town with a tired stream that cuts through a tired ravine.

Esquias Church

Song birds chirp through the trees while in the smoky light of evening, cooking can be smelled in the streets.
Here too, one is confronted with a wide range of new stimuli. While not flashing lights and fashion, it too takes some getting used to.

Scenic road.

Morning Fire
“Jeremy, Jeremy, look over there.” Now, I hadn’t been doing any looking in the past twenty minutes. I got up an hour earlier at 3:40am so we could catch the bus to Tegus. I was tired. While the loud music and bumpy roads worked against me, I was determined to catch some more sleep in the early darkness.
What is there to see, I wondered as I opened the lids to oblige Christin’s voice.
Fire. The woods were aflame. Not a raging tempest, but a forest fire none the less. Red and orange tongues grew from underbrush and clung to trees, flicking light and shadow through the dark.
Almost as soon as we were next to it, the bus shot on through the forest, leaving only a haunting memory of these morning flames dancing in my memory.


The Difference a Border Makes

Borders. Ever since the Treat of Westphalia, which established the criteria for an independent state, the world has been obsessed with borders, these boundaries which designate one piece of land from another. These imaginary lines which for all intensive purposes exist only on maps, cause violence, hatred, and separation between and amongst neighbors. Kashmir. The DMZ. Mexico/US. Israel and Palestine.
When you come to a border, especially via a major road, the first thing you often notice is all the trucks. They are lined up, waiting to bring goods from one country to another. Then there’s the soldiers with tall, black leather boots, money exchangers with stacks of bills and calculators hung from their necks, small shacks selling food, then, of course, customs/immigration. Pass through all of this with a stamp of approval in your little book and you’re in a new country.

Crossing into Nica


But how new is it? Especially between most Central American countries, like Honduras and Nicaragua, the border I just crossed, you don’t have a language change. The land doesn’t care much what country it’s in, same trees, same rocks, oddly enough the same sky above.
So why does it feel different, to pass into a new country? I’m sitting on this crowded bus trying to figure that out. Maybe it’s the man preaching about Jesus Christo and Agua Viva, but that can’t be it: I still can’t understand his language. Maybe it’s because I know people in this country and our imminent arrival lightens the travel stress a bit. Maybe Nicaragua, with the really nice street signs, the narrow hilly paths, the currency named after conquistadors, the large population, or the powerful revolution really has a different vibe, one more comforting than that of Honduras. Or maybe I haven’t had enough water to drink today and just feel the effects of dehydration. I don’t know, nor do I expect I ever will. Whatever it was, I appreciate Nicaragua and this change of borders.

Viva La Revolucion

Nicaragua: Land of Dinosaurs

Why come visit Nicaragua? This question was posed to me a number of times and is one the Nicaraguan Chamber of Commerce strives to answer. Our answers are similar: the culture, the natural beauty, interesting history, the fine cigars, rum, festivals, and sharks. Sure all of these are great, though the “famous” freshwater sharks of Lake Nicaragua often disappoint. The only time worthwhile to come and see them is around election time, when they leave their wet homes and go to the polls. Ever wonder why the literacy test was abolished in 1873 in Nicaragua? Well, that’s because sharks tended to bite the heads off officials denying their right to vote. Around election time, scuba divers enter the lake to campaign for various candidates and win the support of the sharks. There was the famous incident in 1998 when a campaigner claimed she had the opposing candidates name bitten into her shoulder by a particularly cranky shark, but the claims were dropped after it was revealed they had been in a particularly nasty relationship and the bite marks looked nothing like those of the shark in question.
So, the sharks aren’t much of a reason to visit, unless you enjoy slow conversations in dark depths with hosts of questionable hunger restraint.
No, I came to see the dinosaurs, particularly the Rock Pterodactyls and the Mountain Triceratops. These were first discovered in the 15th century by Spanish Conquistador Julio Maximillion in his famous trek through Central America.

From his diaries:
“We found strange beasts in the mountains, mostly used to help with agriculture. They are stupid and godless and our priests encouraged a quick extermination to get rid of them. However, their leader petitioned us, though a native interpreter, to spare their species. They promised the gold that inlaid their horns, and gold in great quantities. I am inclined to make an agreement with them, but on our own terms.”

Thus the great dino-Spanish gold trade began, along with the long standing problems in the dino population. Family structures were broken with youngsters leaving home to seek wealth in the mines. Abuse and suppression continued for centuries until the infamous crackdown on the native dino groups by the Somoza regime. Remaining groups fled into the remote Santa Escal mountains where they lived for years with little government harassment. However, during the late 1970s, Sandinista rebels made contact with the recluse dinosaurs and made a number of pacts, particularly with the triceratops and pterodactyls. They were instrumental in the fighting against government troops, with soldiers reporting bullets bouncing off armored triceratops and pterodactyls raining napalm with no warning. After the war, many dinosaurs became peace activists, greatly affected by the violence they saw and were open critics of the United States support of the Contras. In recent years, most have settled in largely dinosaur communities, though some can be found lumbering through the halls of universities or lecturing at various peace conferences throughout the region.
Hearing one of these talks is alone worth the trip, so here I am in Nicaragua, hoping for some enlightenment from the dinosaurs.

Reflections by the Water
Lago de Apoyo

We are in Nicaragua. We are in a nation of millions of people, millions of fields, millions of homes, millions of lives. We are in the middle of this at Lago de Apoyo, staying on the shores if this lake in the midst of a crater that erupted, eroded, became vegetated, and filled with water. We are on the dock by the water, legs swinging in the afternoon sun above people splashing through their reflections. We join them in the watery depths. We laugh, swap stories, discover hot springs, dive down below those reflections. We hear tales from those we met for only two weeks or some not until today. WE hear about this country, and not just about stats and figures and main attractions and violent histories. We sit by the water and let our reflections mingle while we listen to relationships, to meetings, classrooms, workers in the compo, to struggles, concerns, joys, Espanol, strong women, Machismo men. We hear about faith, justice, community, simplicity. We eat, drink, turn our voices to song, music. We stare into fires and speak of grand philosophies, systems of oppression, the future of our world, our family, friends. We watch as flames reflect in our eyes and hearts, drifting smoke over our heads into the starry heaven above. We sit below the stars, beside the fire, in a place called Nicaragua, among friends, reflecting by the water.

If you are in JVC, I will cut off my left arm if you haven’t heard this word. Simple definition: the act of going or being with another. One of the big things for this program is simply being with the people we live and work with. Sure we have jobs, but sometimes it is more powerful and meaningful to be there for people rather than accomplishing some task or mission. It is something we Americans have a hard time dealing with, as our culture stresses having results to show from our endeavors. It is a little hard to produce some finished product after sitting with a child who has an abusive mother, listening to complaints, or hearing the story of a rural teacher.

My main motivation to visit Nicaragua was to see the JVs, both the ones I had met at orientation and those who I had just heard stories about. While it was incredibly wonderful to talk to them and see their homes and cities, I also very much wanted to see was their workplaces. Though time was limited, I was able to accomplish this goal and really understand the definition of accompaniment.

Nica and Belize JVs after Easter Vigil Mass

On Monday I first visited Contera, Trucha’s worksite, with Al. This is essentially a community center for the jovenies, the youth. It was started after the Nicaraguan government started taking young people from the schools so they could fight against the contras. Many simply left school so they wouldn’t be forced to join, but ended up roaming around the streets, forming gangs. Contera provides a place for youth to meet, with theater groups, karate, dance troupes, and artistic venues. We dropped in, walked around, then quickly left so Christin and I could bus it into Managua. There we met up with Thomas and Heather, who also runs a library (whoot!). Thomas works at a women’s bank, where loans are given to women to start various enterprises. Loans range from $150US to $400. Women hold each other accountable, so if one fails to make a payment, the others cover them. Every week, the women meet, discuss how they are doing, reflect, listen to Bible readings, and discuss social issues.

I sat in on two such meetings. Knowing no Spanish, there wasn’t much I could do but sit and watch. Christin chatted with some of the old ladies and I observed the women lining up to make payments. Afterwards, Thomas thanked me for coming. Thanks? But I didn’t do anything. I literally didn’t even know what was even going on. Then I started thinking about accompaniment. Very rarely do other people get to see our jobs, what we spend the majority of our days doing and thinking about. It is a powerful thing to have someone want to come see this part of your life, and a powerful thing to see another’s. Accompanying fellow JVs left me with a great feeling after leaving Nicaragua. Sure I might not fully understand their realities, but now I have a better idea than I did before. I am blown away how impressive it is that they work and live in a country where I can’t even say thank you, and they can have meaningful conversations with women who are eighty years old and sell used clothes on the street. Accompanying isn’t hard, but you have to be mindful to do it. Try it out. It could make a world of difference.

***While not mentioned in any writings, while in Esquias, we met up with Christin's high school service group, thus the reason we went there. They were working on a project to bring water to 140 people. We helped out one day, digging ditches where pipe would be laid.
Here are those pictures and other assorted ones of interest.

Me doing some labor

Mountain Road

Digging some ditches

In Esquias!

Boy in the street

5am Palm Sunday Procession


  1. Jeremy, I've really enjoyed this. I was in Central America in 2008 and love that part of the world. I'm currently serializing my Belize travel journal on my website I was over there doing research for a novel about gap year volunteering. The jungle overwhelmed me with it's beauty, as did the coastline. I loved the cultural diversity, the paranda music, the warmth of the people, especially the Kekchi- Mayans.

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