Dear friends,

 

Happy New Year, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and holidays to you! I hope you are in good health, warm company, and fine spirits as this letter reaches you – if so, you’ve beaten the odds; and if not, I hope this helps.

 

I am well enough; certainly in good health and in the loving company of my family, though as for spirits, I must confess those dive and soar as the waves of life roll past. I know that I haven’t written you in quite some time – I can say this safely because I haven’t written anyone in quite some time: it just hasn’t been a part of my life lately. Nonetheless, there is a certain tradition to the end of each year; a sense of finality and closure, and I’d like to do my bit to convey some of the fading wonder of my 2010 to you.

 

This time last year, I was in Nicaragua – a lovely country with wonderful, but far from home and family. I spent my Christmas with a handful of travelers and expatriates on a remote beach on the Pacific shore, throwing rocks into the ocean out of cell phone range, as far from the modern world as I could manage. For New Years I got disgustingly drunk with people I barely knew, making a complete ass of myself in front of a girl I had been trying to impress, and ended up burning a long list of everything I wished to remove from my life in a bonfire – I distinctly remember both “my ties to the country I was born in” and “the baggage of my past” being on that sheet of paper. Judging from my present position, that worked out amazingly well, and I’ve had no further problems in that area.

 

After the New Year, I hitched rides down to the capital of Nicaragua, rode buses to Panama City, and spent entirely too much time at border crossings in an attempt to meet up with a good friend and ride the same plane as him down to Colombia. Being as he had all the details on where we were going, it was only fitting I never saw him. Instead, I got into a late-night argument with a fabulous girl from New York, and we ended up traveling together and dating. (Let that be a lesson to everyone – if she opens the conversation with “Oh my God, are you still on your fucking phone?!” she is a keeper.)

 

Anyway, Natalie and I had a wonderful time, and after I convinced her to blow off her trip to Peru, we did a tour of some of the more beautiful parts of one of the more ridiculously beautiful countries on the planet. Seriously – find someone who has been to Colombia who will dispute the awesomeness of this country, and you’ve found a complete curmudgeon – congrats. America has Natalie largely to thank for rehabilitating her image in my mind: I guess I figured that if someone as great as her could come out of the country, then it couldn’t be all terrible. She and I spent about 3, 3 ½ weeks together, and then out of nowhere she was gone and I was alone again. Following a terribly overwrought airport goodbye scene and a crazy cokehead-driven bus ride north, what else was there for me to do except check into a mountaintop paragliding school for the next month?

 

I almost died there – not a joke at all – I’m a bad paraglider. I ended up in the bushes a few times, draped a glider over some power lines, and on my very last flight crashed into a tree and fell 40-50 feet to the ground. It’s no small miracle that I’m still here to tell this story. Still, it was a legendary experience, and nothing I’ve ever done before or since can directly compare. At the end of February, I said my goodbyes, packed my bags, and the very next morning took off to the airport. There I undertook one of the weirdest transitions in my life – torrential rain delay, 12 or 15 hours of flights (Colombian Airlines are great by-the-by) and then straight into “Snowpocalypse” – a huge blizzard with sub-zero temperatures. Did I mention I flew to NYC to visit Natalie in lieu of coming home? Yeah, that happened.

 

So there I am; torn jeans, pack of smelly clothes, t-shirt with volcanoes on it, and I’ve invited myself to come live with a girl I’ve known for less time than you’ve known the guy at your local gas station. Crazy, right? Definitely – crazy is a good descriptive word for the life I was leading. I got a cab to Natalie’s apartment, showed up extremely nervous she would just see me and slam the door, and instead was treated to a fabulous time with a lovely lady. She’d even “borrowed” a coat from some guy who had left it at a bar – good thing too, or I would have died of cold for sure! As it was, I invaded her life, she took me in with striking hospitality, and we made the best of the cold and poverty. It was a great time, made better by that strange sense of transience that comes from knowing one of you is going to bail out of town at a moment’s notice – As it was, I left just before her birthday. What can I say? I am a classy man.

 

What ended up happening is that I had placed a posting on Craigslist asking if someone was headed in the general direction of Los Angeles, and would they be so kind as to take a total stranger along with them? It worked better than I could have hoped: five hours after I sent my message, I received one from a man named Matt, who just so happened to be moving to LA. I called him, he sounded exactly like I didn’t expect a serial killer to sound, and that was good enough – the only drawback was leaving Natalie earlier than I wanted to. We had this fabulous goodbye; just like a romance novel really, and then she went off to school, and I went back into to the coffee shop to wait for my ride. Here’s how good this goodbye was – a little old lady came up to me as Natalie faded into the distance and told me that she only saw people part ways like that in the movies!

 

Then Matt called to postpone our departure – he’d found another rider who wanted to pay for gas. I went back to Natalie’s place, killed some time, and managed to delay leaving just long enough to see her coming home from the subway as I went down to the subway to head into the city. It was… the opposite of a romance novel goodbye. We made out on the cold sidewalk for a bit and then I – stupidly! – headed into Manhattan and let her get away again. As it turned out, Matt was running even later, and I was too broke to do most anything. I hung out with my cousin for a bit, and spent a couple more hours casually hiding inside the Apple store drinking cough syrup to keep from freezing and reflecting on how much better my life would be if I’d just stayed at Natalie’s place. Nonetheless, as a legitimate homeless person, I felt that a certain image had to be maintained – I’m sure the real patrons appreciated it.

 

Sometime after midnight Matt and I finally met up and began driving. The other guy – forget his name – and Matt rode up front, and I passed out almost immediately among the strewn books and bags and detrius of a man’s life uprooted. By the time I woke up, we were in Ohio. Illinois? Ohio. With 3 people you can swap drivers from here til next week, and nobody really gets tired of it, so it only took us 16 or 20 hours to get to Nashville, even after detouring to drop off Adam or Steve or Jesus at his family’s home and eat their peanut butter sandwiches. I took a few pictures – the best being a “Florence Y’all” water tower in Florence, and a street sign with Church going one way and Gay the other. Also, Matt pointed out the eye of Sauron on a local high rise. Finally, we found the Music City hostel, and made ourselves at home.

 

Nashville was a treat – country music Mecca, busking musicians everywhere, country dancing, swing bands, and we happened to pull into town right as the biggest college basketball conference tournament I’ve ever personally seen rolled into the city. Every night it was dance parties, every day strange adventures and surprisingly awesome Mexican food. With the foreign travelers and artists and drifters, I felt right at home. Matt and I enjoyed it all so much that we barely made it out of town with money enough for gas!

 

Lacking funds, food, and with my randomly-imposed March 17th deadline fast approaching, we booked it across the country. If you consider the 12 or so hours we spent at the home of the always-hospitable Becky and Seth in Durant as “on pause”, then it took us just under 48 hours to drive from Nashville to Venice Beach, where Matt and I parted ways forever friends. Speaking of friends, one of my best buddies Rad drove wayyy out of his daily life to come pick me up and buy me dinner that first night, and the gratitude I felt I still feel now. A friend will give you ride, but only a true best friend will come pick you up, tell you that you stink so badly that he’s not allowing you to go to a restaurant, and then buy you pizza! I spent the night with Chad and Rad, their respective girlfriends, and the infamous Jake motherfuckin’ Wood, who I’m sure you’ve heard of. If not, you really need to get out there. They took a lovely shot of me passed out about 3-4 hours after my arrival – It was a bit of an adventure!

 

However, all adventures end, and this one came to a pretty abrupt close just as soon as I made it back home. Little aside here – by this point, I have had a quite respectable epic adventure. I’ve crossed nations, I’ve changed continents, I’ve flown, I’ve crash-landed, I’ve met a girl, fallen in love, and moved in with her, I’ve made a handful of lifetime friends, I’ve been threatened with arrest and thrown out of very nice establishments. These first 3 months of 2010 have set an incredibly high bar for the rest of the year, no? Well, as it turns out, this is where the whole mood changes, and 2010 becomes the hardest year of my life.

 

If you didn’t already know, my younger brother is Schizophrenic. He’s not only schizophrenic – it isn’t a definition – but it’s certainly something you ought to know about the guy before you meet him, because once you do meet him, you’re going to want that sort of an explanation! Otherwise, depending on his mood and medication level, he’s going to strike you as anything from “slightly eccentric” to “Holy shit.”

 

When I first saw Ken after nearly 15 months away, I wasn’t prepared. At the time, he wasn’t diagnosed, wasn’t medicated, and while my mother had sent me many emails about his declining condition and her worries about him, there just isn’t any way to prepare for something like seeing your brother after his descent into madness. He was a wreck – not at first, when he came to pick me up and drive me home, but 3 hours later, when he began vividly arguing and gesticulating with someone imaginary in the hallway, it became very clear that something was horribly wrong.

 

The whole time I was gone, I had this snapshot of my family just as I had left them. In in, we’re all happy, smiling; I’m trying to shove the dog’s head in my mouth – we’re a normal, happy, family even if Dad takes blood pressure pills and Kyle had seizures as a kid. All of a sudden, we weren’t normal. That snapshot was bullshit. I had just been fooling myself all along. I walked into my family home and it was like a whole other family had inhabited the bodies of my parents and brothers. They were automatons going through the motions and each individually seeking to escape the terrible situation thrust upon them, and to come into that as I did, hopeful, ecstatic, energized to take on the world and beat it – well, it took the life right out of me.

 

To be fair, I was forewarned – my entire homecoming had been orchestrated in response to a series of emails received from Ken, mom, and a trusted friend while I was still in Panama. Actually, that moment I met Natalie – “Are you still on your fucking phone?!” – I was reading a lengthy email from Ken about how the parents didn’t understand him and were conspiring to lock him up in prison. It’s not so much I didn’t know, but really that I couldn’t see the situation accurately from afar – I didn’t want to, I wasn’t able to, I didn’t.

 

I abandoned pretty much all my plans upon coming home – Becky has warned me as we left her house that family problems tend to suck everyone in, and I’d sworn up and down that I would never, ever, for any reason, let that happen to me – driving across Arizona I’d sworn it to myself a dozen times. Yet within 48 hours of coming home I surrendered to the task at hand and started rebuilding. I put away all my photos – I’ve never shown traveling pictures to anyone, ever. Most of them never made it out of my camera except to be copied to my hard drives. My pack is still mostly packed, sitting in a corner of my closet, full of memories and trinkets. I swallowed my stories, let the fire in my eyes ember, and went into damage control – and what damage there was.

 

Mostly, I went into a tailspin. Transitioning from travel to home is difficult in the best circumstances, but going from full-on transience to sedentary life, trading hitchhiking for a desk job, and giving up writing, music, singing, and dancing all at once? That’s just a recipe for disaster. I fell apart, got a data-entry job for the Census, and the next few months are a blur of a job I hated, a home life I hated, and brief gems of home – letters from friends out in the world, free rock climbing with an old friend, and occasional escape to my sanctuary with Chad-Rad-Jake at the new “Boy’s House.”

 

I don’t mean to sound as if I wasn’t happy to see my family – I’m sure that comes across, but isn’t true – I was perfectly ecstatic to see them again, but to see them like this hurt like a sword through the chest. You never want to see your loved ones doubting their own existence, blaming themselves for genetics, or squirreling themselves away to hide from the failing family dynamic. Nobody who hasn’t been through a complete family meltdown can quite grasp how it undermines everything else in your life – we were all spending our days just trying to get up, work, eat, and get back to sleep again, and any day where all that happened without something else breaking was a good day. Looking back from right now, in a slightly brighter but still grim present, I have no clue how everyone pulled through that.

 

Slowly, it did get better. Ken got a diagnosis, new medication, birthdays passed, I got a job waiting tables, Dad graduated the police academy (3rd time through, those fucking bastards) and on the whole, things looked like they might be recovering. Also, some long-time friends got married, and celebration always helps to bring up the spirits. I mean, Ken did cold-cock me in the eye at one of the weddings after going cold turkey off his pills, and I started my new job with a fantastically swollen black eye, but we got through all that, and it’s been a gradual upslope ever since.

 

Yes, except for Dad losing his job, and my hours being cut so that I had to take a job washing dishes at minimum wage, and Ken’s recovery hitting a plateau, and Kyle’s grades, and Mom’s mental health, and the stolen trailer, and the broken pool motor, and the money trouble, and the arguments, and the silent malaise overshadowing every instant of our lives, it’s been a steady rise to the present. One might even say we’re quite lucky really – most people can’t take another crisis, whereas we’re so used to them that it’s all taken in stride. “Oh look,” one of us will yawn, “While we weren’t home tonight, the peaceful dottering old dog we all love and cherish fell into the icy pool and drown because she was too blind and weak to get out. How perfectly appropriate.” Don’t you wish I was making that up.

 

I think we’ve been cursed perhaps, or maybe pissed off Apollo or some of those Norse gods – not enough sacrificing, or insufficient lamentation. Perhaps life on the shit end of the stick was just too good for us, so we’ve been downgraded to the shit itself. I don’t really know the answer, but I can tell you that ever since I came home, it has been a struggle simply to wake up each morning and not sob myself back to sleep. What kind of person abandons his family to run off and have fabulous, unbelievable adventures while the people he adores fall apart? Who does that, and then, when it’s his turn to suffer along with them, spends every spare moment dreaming of running away again? Pray you don’t have to wrestle those demons.

 

And yet… I can’t bring myself to really believe that leaving wasn’t the best thing that could have happened to me. When I came back home, I was a strong enough person to deal with all the hardship and misery that this year has thrown my way, and still have inner strength to support my family. The old me, the one who never had to live on coffee for a week, the one who never had to fight parasites or crash paragliders or hitch rides from drunk drivers would never have been able to do what I have. Further, if I hadn’t been out of the picture, what’s to say I wouldn’t have just sunk down into the muck with everything else? As it turned out, my re-entry forced a lot of jolting and adjustment within the family – If I had been around the whole time, that unfamiliarity, that different view, would never have been what small help it was to swing things around for the better. Vagabonding forged me to survive, and it has been a welcome source of strength in these trying times.

 

Now, as the year and this letter come to a close, let me share a few future hopes and plans with you, so that we can perhaps end upon a much happier note. The holidays have been fabulous for us – we took a family ski trip in lieu of material gifts, and the change of scenery certainly helped to level out our mood swings. Tahoe is a very gorgeous area, we managed to visit between the massive storms, and the snowboarding, sledding, and horseplay were all therapy to us. Afterward we drove down to Grandpa’s house, did the family Christmas celebration, and managed to get home before family togetherness got the better of anyone. From there, I headed up to Santa Barbara to visit friends, wear a suit, and ring in the new year like a classy individual. It kind of worked – I spent the entire 31st sick in (someone else’s) bed, but managed to rally before midnight, got dressed, and between surprise visitors and good company, it was a great time.

 

My next step (which I’ve actually started already, since I’ve been slacking on writing this letter) is to take a leave from my job, fly to New York City to see Natalie again, then hitchhike to Oklahoma to live with Becky and Seth and write a book of my adventures. I’m looking forward to the coming year – with the family slowly recovering, I feel comfortable enough to leave again, and I’m looking at a job teaching English abroad. Travel and adventure seem to be my calling, so I’ll be doing as much of that as I can while I’m still able. I will have to work hard – I don’t have much money – but I’m confident that I can find what I’m looking for if I keep searching. For now it is enough to be back on the road, living out of a bag, and unsure of what tomorrow will bring. I hope that you all are living the lives you desire, surrounded by loving people, and happy with your present. If not, it is never too late to change your reality, and I hope that you do not settle for a life that does not fulfill your dreams.

 

I would love to hear from you, so if you ever have the chance, call me, email me, write me, skype me, facebook me, instant message me, (that’s still a thing, right?) send me a carrier pigeon, or send me a smoke signal. We live in the future – it has never been easier to contact each other!

 

Until next we cross paths, -k

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So here we are again – June 2nd, so you can see how abysmally long my writing turnaround is. You, possibly an accidental visitor to my site, about to read another wild, lurid, half-sane adventure story of my creation, and me taking up my position in front of the laptop to wander, pontificate, blabber, and overuse groups of 3 things to make whatever the hell point I’m trying to get at with this all. I won’t lie – these past 2 weeks have been some of the best times of my life, and I look forward to sharing them with the Internets at large, but I’m a bit apprehensive about how it’ll all turn out – the stories in my head are vivid and brilliant, and I can only hope I’ll put them to paper in the same way I envision them inside. Also, there’s a whole section that hinges on drugs and alcohol, so that might come back to haunt me. No matter – I’ve pledged myself to tell the truth as best I can, and I can’t stop just because some people I don’t know might be offended.

I dedicate this trip to Jack Kerouac, whose adventures put the spark in me years ago to leap the chains of everyday and set out into the wild unknown. Wherever he is, he’d toss a decomposing, skeletal smile my way for this one.  Actually, is he dead? Think so.

Dream

The Great Central American Road Trip:
Ok, so “the great” is a bit fucking presumptuous. A lot actually. What I mean to say is that, dramatic title aside, this was my first foreign-language road trip, and I was more then a little scared that whatever I was about to do would end up with me lost in a strange city, robbed of my possessions and unable to communicate with the people passing me by, just another poor wayward gringo, a victim for organ thieves and loose gangster rappers to lob verbal word bombs and gats at, or whatever it is they do. As you may recall from my previous writings on the subject, I have been needing to renew my tourist visa in order to remain here in Honduras, and my prior attempt was thwarted by an inordinate amount of vomit expelling itself (cause I certainly wasn’t trying to!) from my ass and mouth. It basically came down to this – I had 3 days to leave the country without facing a 2750 Lempira (roughly $137) fine. I’m broke like nobody’s business, and definitely can’t pay that, so I made my own plans to leave Honduras via Guatemala and end up in Punta Gorda, Belize, where I would rest, do fuck all, and eventually make it back to Honduras. On my way back, I was tentatively planning to go check out Trujillo, on the north coast of Honduras, where I had found a possible job working at a local hostel.

That was the sum total of my plans until 9pm the night before leaving – I really can’t make them anyway, else life intervenes, but this was a pretty extreme example of my lack of preparation. I packed my bag with 4 days clothes, a week’s medicines and supplies, all my money, passport, wallet, lucky Zippo, mosquito net, smoking kit, my priceless sleeping bag liner for hot weather sleeping, and of course, my towel. No real hitchhiker would go without it, not if they plan to see the sights of the universe on less then 30 Altarian dollars a day, anyway. All this set, I for the first time asked my host mom (as opposed to the internet) how exactly I was supposed to get from Pespire to Punta Gorda. She was great – made some phone calls, got a directo lined up, and in less then an hour I was set to take a bus from a nearby town all the way through El Salvador, Guatemala, and onward to Belize. It was… anti-climactic. It didn’t feel right. I don’t DO organized, easy travel. So it came it came as no shock when my host dad intervened ten minutes later to point out the northern route was more complicated, but shorter and cheaper if I could make the connections. I jumped at the opportunity, threw all the night’s careful planning out the window, and resolved to leave the next morning at 6am sharp.

More precisely, I resolved to leave 5 hours later – and I did, after 4 hours sleeping, a quick shower, a once-over of the bag and the addition of malaria meds, antibiotics, and my hat, and some coffee and cornflakes – breakfast of the lazy, chronic masturbators (look up the history, I dare you) and therefore of yours truly. My host parents are adorable in that they haven’t yet stopped treating me like a kid – they were both up to see me off, had packed me a lunch and some snacks for the road, and saw me all the way to the car. I’ve got the real ones trained not to worry too much about me, but I could see that the Rivera family was worried sick about what might happen to me as I headed out into the wild world. Secretly, I shared some of their fears – this was going to be one hell of a Spanish exam.

Somewhere North of San Pedro Sula Somewhere North of San Pedro Sula

Day 1: 21 May, 2009
I hitched a ride with some locals heading into Tegucigalpa, and a little over an hour later got dropped off at the El Rey bus station in some shady part of town. Hurrying inside, I almost ate shit on something slimy and rotting outside the door, caught myself, and made it through the door. First leg down, and I spent half of it sleeping and the other making inane conversation with people who spoke 10x faster then I. As it turned out, there was a special on buses to San Pedro Sula Mon, Wed, Fri at this station, so I spent all of 100L to ride 3 ½ hours north to the biggest city in Honduras. Popped a Bonine, peed in a completely unlit, uncleaned for possibly all of it’s history bathroom, and passed 20 minutes reading the guide book to see where I would be staying that night. I was just reading about how Puerto Cortes is on the cocaine highway and thus a sketchy place to spend any time at all when the bus conductor started yelling at me to get aboard, and I did. Threw my bag into the under-bus compartment (I don’t recommend this, it’s dirty and stanky and gets your shit all covered in grime) and climbed aboard with my notebook, dinero hidden everywhere except my ass, and the passport hidden in my ass, prisoner style – yes I’m kidding. Point is, I had everything I needed to survive hidden in secret little compartments all over my body – it’s pretty stealth, but sucks when you need something particular. Anyway, the bus pulled out, I settled in, and thus begins the story…

The bus ride to San Pedro wasn’t much worth writing about, except that it was my first time to head substantially north of Teguc and I spent all my time staring out the window, reading Kerouac, writing furiously, and just enjoying life. It’s my great joy to just GO, no real destination, limited only by my heart and my wallet, and to see where life takes me. I can feel the ebb and sway of the lifestream when I take these leaps, and whenever I finally crash down on solid ground, I feel this throbbing elation at having flown – that sensation only the truly wild, the truly free can even feel, and even fewer can appreciate. It’s my high, and so I was giddy the whole bus ride north. I bought fruit off a few vendors who boarded the bus, mango pieces from one, pineapple from another. It got more humid, more oppressive as the bus rolled North, and I swung the window open to suck in Free Air – great book by the by. The fields got more lush, the roadside houses a bit more numerous, but otherwise nothing of great value happened on this leg of the trip. At one point the woman next to me farted loudly in her sleep, but seriously, if I’m mentioning this, it’s hardly a part of the adventure worth talking more about.

Disembarking the bus, I stepped into the blast furnace of the San Pedro bus station, an airport of bus fleets, all concrete and terminals, with row upon row of buses to all corners of Honduras and Central America. It was so much I almost skipped down the steps, but not before remembering to ask the bus driver where I could catch a bus north to Puerto Cortes, my next stop. He shrugged and told me “otro lado” giving the Honduran lip point toward a distant terminal. So much for help… I shouldered my bag, fought through waves of taxistas and bus ayudantes, and generally beamed ear-to-ear as I made my way through the cavernous bus terminal to the “other side” where I apparently could find a bus.

The place reminded me of nowhere more then some of the bigger airports I’ve been through – the same food courts, mall-like areas, stands, milling crowds, lost tourists and wide-eyed gringo backpackers fresh out of rural Honduras. All the brands were on display here, surf Ts, 7 jeans, with the latest tired bullshit American hip-hop beats blasting out of 8 foot speaker sets set off to one side. Guards with shotguns and mp5 submachine guns roamed the corridors, frowning at the crowds, and I found a bathroom off to one side, leaked the lizard, and continued, stopping only to buy a pack of gum and a few bottles of water and 7up. Oh poverty tourism.

Finally emerging on the other side of this bazaar, crossroads, temple to the high art of parting fools from their money, I found myself in the middle of another shouting crowd of bus ayudantes and taxistas fighting to get me wherever I was going. These guys are great, real lifesavers, but annoying like those yappy little dogs that rich ladies carry around like toys. More useful by far though – if you can understand them, they’re all yelling destinations, and all you have to do is pinpoint which is recruiting passengers for the ride you need. If nobody is, you can just throw out a “necesito irme a ______. Puede ayudar?” and see where that gets you. Usually, it gets you pointed in the right direction and it did here too. I was on the wrong side of the terminal, but closer then before. I retraced a few steps, got spit out at the bottom of an escalator – wait, good story here.

I was approaching the escalator when I saw a woman trying to get on who had apparently never ridden one before. She kept trying to step onto it, but would hesitate, her foot getting sucked away, which would cause her to shriek and jump back. 2 men were trying to help her, but she got hysterical, screaming and crying about how it was going to break her. In the end the 2 men shrugged at each other and hoisted her armpits and ankles and just rode down carrying her screeching, cursing, wailing body down the 20 second ride. You’d have thought they were beating her, robbing her, anything from the way she was carrying on. For the unhelpful outsider (yo) it was hysterical, and a couple teenage Honduran girls and I kept our giggling to ourselves until we saw the others doing the same, and finally burst out into body-shaking laughter. It was just too much, too early in the day. Really, this lady must have had a relative murdered by a gang of escalators from a bad neighborhood – she was just out-of-her-skull panicked.

Carrying on, I made it out to the correct side of the terminal, got loaded into a busito (just a smaller bus, usually one of those extended vans, but they get a different name here) and a sticky, boring half-hour later we were off to Puerto Cortes. I tried killing time talking to people or staring out the windows, but it was depressing, nobody wanted to talk and the scenery just kept getting poorer, albeit greener and wetter. It was brutal humid, the bus AC wasn’t conditioning anything, and so I contented myself to drift off staring out the window and dreaming of oceans. Got shook awake a bit later by a cop, which got my mind racing as to what I’d been caught for, but he was just conducting a friendly drug search of the bus, and after 15 minutes sitting by the side of the road, a nice frisking, and a none-too-friendly goodbye to the fuzz, we were off again. Nice guys, these Honduran cops.

Still, it brought back to mind the part of the Honduras guidebook I’d read in Teguc. Puerto Cortes is part of the cocaine trafficking route north to the United States, and as such features such lovely amenities as whores, drug pushers, and the occasional knife-you-up sorta junkie. Enjoy your stay, you lucky bastards! At least, that’s what I would have written. Here’s my introduction to Puerto Cortes – a few minutes outside of the main drag, a truck runs a signal in front of us and the bus T-bones him. A good one too, crushes the driver’s rear quarterpanel on the truck, I hear the bus’ headlights shatter, and everything comes to a screeching, jerking halt. Some screaming, late like usual, courtesy of the lady seated behind, completed this, my 8th lifetime vehicle collision. Getting kind of numb to it by now, I watched the yelling bus driver and the yelling truck driver yell yelly yells at each other for a while. When it became apparent that nobody was going to do anything aside from yell for the present, I hopped out, strapped my pack on, and asked a passerby how to get to the bus station. After one last look back at the hostile-but-uninjured parties, I shrugged and hoofed it the rest of the way to town.

As it turned out, the crash was more of a metaphor then anything else, Puerto Cortes is a collision in itself – a huge shipping center T-boned by the narcotics trade. Unlike ours however, this one has left a whole lot of victims – the whole town is reeling, sinking, succumbing to the brutal wounds of illegal drugs and terrible state policies, addiction, dirty money, grinding poverty, and no opportunities to escape, move up. I walked the dirt streets for a while with only the word of an anonymous local to guide me, and more by luck then anything I ended up running straight into the only restaurant the guidebook told me was worth visiting in the whole town. It was closed, didn’t open until 3 said the man sweeping the floor. It was about 2 now, so my sweaty, tired self took the safest route available and walked 15 blocks down main street to Pizza Hut.

Yes, Pizza Hut. In a strange Honduran town, with no guide except a book telling me the whole place is worthless and to stay the fuck away if you don’t like whores and blow, it was a haven of wifi, passable food, and AIR CONDITIONING. Fucking dig it. I ordered a lemonade and a calzone, and drank 5 glasses of sugar water while mulling the fact that I’d just spent as much on lunch as I had on 2 bus rides. How these fast food places make any money charging US prices in Honduras I have no idea, but they definitely put US Pizza Huts to shame here. Waiters, a birthday song with 7 verses, tablecloths, legitimate service, free wifi (for the computer I didn’t bring) and the cleanest bathroom I’d see/desecrate for a while yet were the perks of the whole experience. Unfortunately for them, all of this can’t top shitty food, and Pizza Hut makes calzones a punishment. I was hungry, mowed it down, and filled up on lemonade. Paid my tab, sat and let the sweat cool into a nice salt film, then set out to find myself somewhere to sleep without getting the stabby treatment.

First though, went to the bus station to see when I could perhaps get the fuck out of here and on my way to Guatemala. No dice. I asked a few people near the buses when one was leaving, but nobody could tell me anything until finally a nearby restaurant owner walked out and told me that the last bus had left at 2:30 and the next would at 5:30pm, so fuck, I’m stuck with the choice of hanging out the night in this grimy, crimey town or taking off on a bus trip of unclear length, then trying to find somewhere to sleep in a town I know nothing about. In a decision very much at odds with the story unfolding, I said fuck it and went hotel hunting.

A couple blocks down I passed the Hotel Formosa, or as I first thought at first sight, a run-down Soviet-bloc apartment complex, or possibly a jail that had been later merged with 3-4 other nearby buildings. The most impressive thing to me was that someone had just kept building layer onto layer of this ridiculous structure until it resembled nothing more then the end result of a determined inbreeding effort. Entering, I found out it cost 220 Lempira a night, less then only other place I’d asked about, and frankly it was just low enough/late enough for me to spend that much without really caring. Lets see what a $12 hotel room looks like. I got the room key and the TV clicker, walked 20 feet and had to wait to be let through the floor-to-ceiling steel gate by a caretaker on the other side. “At least it’s safe” was what I said to reassure myself, but I thought it was just like walking into one of those awful cheap horror flicks. The next area I entered had been a courtyard at one point, but was now covered with a brown semi-transparent plastic roof two stories up, giving the whole place a dingy orange look, and the dry fountain yawned at me, a trickle of water and black algae offering scant proof that it was anything other then an ugly statue in an oversized bowl. To my left, I tramped up the wrong staircase (there were three of them in a row) the second wrong staircase, and finally got to my room, off in a corner next to the water tower, a dingy room with a broken shower, a barred window, and a door I wouldn’t trust to stop a determined leper let alone a real crook. I hid my things between the dresser and the wall, took a drooling shower, and washed my shirt, socks, underwear in the shower, just to feel classy. Took a few stupid pictures, and set back out to see what sights I possibly could find. Camera, phone, a few bucks, knife, and I was off.

Goofy pictures, what? Goofy pictures, what?

There were no sights, probably never had been. Still disappointing to confirm what I’d expected, so I consoled myself by walking a couple miles down lonely dirt roads, snapping pictures of bums, construction, poor kids selling things. Typical grinding depressing soul-stealing poverty, with a dash of drug crime and gang activity thrown in. Found another bus station, learned that there were buses hourly 7am to noon to the Guatemalan border, and resolved to be there at 7am sharp. I hate Puerto Cortes with a passion, and nothing even mildly bad happened to me. It’s just boring, empty, a city with no heart, no soul, no beat, nothing! Just being there made me feel miserable and bored and itching to get out, go anywhere, just fucking GO. I walked on.

Made it to that restaurant from earlier, the one recommended by the guidebook, and it wasn’t great. The “lively atmosphere” and “fun staff” had apparently taken a long walk off a short pier, and the sullen waiter and empty, tired restaurant did nothing to lift my spirits. Even the steak tacos didn’t want to be there. I ate quickly, paid what I owed, and meandered back to the hotel. By 5 I was sequestered in my room, writing, watching American movies, and dreaming of the road ahead. I wrote this:

5/21/09 – Back in the room, lounging, doing an ab workout, watching shitty tv. It’s funny – I never do this at home, since I’ve better/more engaging things to get to, but here stuck in my lime green hell, I cling to the box like a teat to back home. The grainy characters, dreams that don’t involve me, make me smile, my key to keeping sane. Suffice it to say that the town here sucks dicks. For a coke-running town, it’s just a pile of dirt streets, late-opening, early-closing restaurants, and divey hotels. I hope I don’t get crabs from the bed tonight. The cigarette burns in the sheets are classy, I’ll give them that.

Outside, I watched the mestizo and Garifuna population go about their days, the obligatory gringo tourist wandering around staring at everything. Between the open sewers, garbage heaps, general poverty, it’s a whole shitstorm of small-town nothing out here. Anyway, it’s depressing as fuck to be here – I’ll be glad to get out of here tomorrow morning. More adventures tomorrow. -k

By 10 I was dozing, using my sleeping sack hoping my head didn’t get on the pillow in my sleep. After another shower to get the dust and grime off, a restless, uncomfortable sleep was all I needed to completely write off Puerto Cortes. Don’t ever go there, it’s the hairy unwashed whore’s vagina of Honduras. Everything goes in and out, some unmentionable business too, and nobody really wants to be in there.

 

Puerto Cortes, from my hotel window Puerto Cortes, from my hotel window

 

Day 2: 22 May, 2009
Friday morning, 5am, I was up and at it. Did the morning routine, blew off nervous energy after a night of bad sleep and weird dreams. After checking out, I walked straight to the bus stop, passed a few breakfast places, and didn’t want anything. Suddenly I stop. Stare. Blueberry Muffin, a big one too. I crossed the street, approached the woman cooking ham and cheese on a portable burner next to the small table.

“Permiso señora, ¿puede venderme una cakecito? Actualmente… dos, porfa.”
Please sell me delicious fuck I- don’t-know-the-word-for-cupcake, improvise! Actually 2.
“¿Como? ¿Quiere comprar algo?”
Crazy white man wants what?
“Sí, quiero comprar unas de estos partes de pan.” (And he throws the lip point)
Yes, I want one of those… pieces of bread/cake/whatev.
“¿Quieres solo pan?”
Yeah, heard that, what else ya want?
“Ah, Sí. ¿Puede venderme una vaso de jugo de naranja y un banano, porfa?
Alright, I’ll have an OJ and a Banana.

And then we chatted about the weather. First Spanish encounter – success. The day started nicely enough, and so perhaps I ought to forgive Puerto Cortes, since the morning actually was pleasant. Cool before the baking sun, a hint of sea breeze, almost cold in the shade. Plus, just-baked blueberry muffins forgive a whole lot of things after you haven’t seen one in 3 months. Fresh squeezed orange juice, a perfectly riped banana don’t hurt either. It was the best breakfast I’ve had in 3 months, just because it wasn’t hot, greasy, or filling. Traveling food.

Bus – sat down in a school bus fitted with overhead baggage racks and a handbar overhead. Swank. I took a seat in the middle, lefthand side, near nobody because I was the second person on the bus. The other was the driver. He looked at me from the back where he was fiddling with some baggage. I sat down, leaned against the window with my hat, journal, and Kerouac as a pillow, and slept. When I woke up we were rolling down the road, crossing the bridge, heading south along the coastal highway to Guatemala. A pretty girl was sitting next to me. I had drool on both my face and shirt. I rubbed it on my hat pillow, shrugged, and looked at her. She looked back and laughed. I curled back up in the corner and went back to sleep.

When I woke up, it was 9:30, and the girl was gone. We were still headed down the highway (ca-14? 12?) and the towns were small, the ocean view on the right side of the bus, but I’d sat on the left, the houses rough and rusty, made mainly of tin over brick walls. Here’s some excerpts of what I wrote in the journal:

5/22/09 – Back on the road today, old school bus, sweating, rattling, hauling ass both sides of the road. Time to time we swing over to the edge to disgorge passengers and swallow more afresh – never fully stopping, the asistante yelling directions. Ayudante? I think that’s right. So far I’m surviving in Spanish, no major fuckups, though I still suck at humor – my fallback in English – means I’ve got to try 10x harder in Spanish to be liked. Still, think I’ve avoided the dumb gringo charge so far, and there’s something to be said for that.

When I caught this bus bout 8 this morning, been riding southwest ever since. Kinda weird to think of it, heading north all yesterday to go south today to go north again this afternoon, but I don’t make the plan or the roads, so I’ll just hang on for the ride. It’s poorer, greener, less paved here then down south. Same brick and tin roof houses, but rustier and unfenced. Less closed off, this community. Fewer private cars, more bombed-out houses from Hurricane Mitch. 10 years left abandoned, these houses and people, and no help coming either. Just more chances to – I don’t know – get sick and die? I’m morbid today at the sight of it all. Going to sightsee some more, can’t hardly write on this road…

And I did, even snapped a few quick, stealthy pictures.

Hit Guatemala/Honduras border, and the bus tossed us all out. 2 money changers hounded me for a while and I eventually traded 1500L for 600 Quetzales, the Guatemalan currency. I hope a 5:2 ratio was good, and it seemed consistent at least, but I could have gotten ripped the hell off for all I know. Wouldn’t be the first time. Walked across the border after showing my passport to the guards, into a no-man’s land of official procedure and red tape bullshit. Went to the immigration window strongly needing to pee, but figuring an exit stamp was the first order of business. Here, just for the sheer ingratiating fun of it, I was told that I couldn’t leave because despite having an entrance sheet from the airport customs, I didn’t have my entrance stamp and thus couldn’t leave the country. (yeah, alright) The man who told me this then proceeded to KEEP my passport, leaving me stranded nearly 2 hours at the immigration building, as bus picking people up at the Guatemalan side of the border left, the sun beat down, and I pondered my options. The man at the desk told me to go back to Teguc and talk to the main immigration office, I politely pointed out that 8 hours of bus rides in the wrong direction was a stupid as fuck course of action and I wouldn’t do it. He pressed on in his one-man show of actually having some teensy bit of power in his life for once, and I “relented” took back my passport, walked around the other side of the building, went to the bathroom and got charged 5L, and then just walked into Guatemala where I got my entrance stamp in seconds. Nobody apparently cared, save captain fuckhead. I bought a sprite, 2 bottles of water, and a pack of gum at the little roadside stands and waited a while for a bus to turn up.

When a busito finally did, I was still the only traveler at the border, and it was 2 hours until the last boat of the day left for Belize. I asked the drivers how much for a ride, they told me 200 Quetzales for a directo – private taxi – and I laughed. “No, collectivo” I told them. They shrugged, and we waited 15 minutes or so. They asked me again if I wanted a directo, only 150Q this time. No, that’s a vergaza of money, and I can’t afford it. 140. Still no. They start driving toward Puerto Barrios, the main port city on the Carribean side of Guatemala, van side door open, at maybe 10 miles an hour. Every 5 minutes, “quiere directo?” followed by my “no.” They pushed it hard for a good 4-5 miles before ordering me out at a bus stop. They asked me for 25 Quetzales, I told them to fuck off, and they left me there. Luckily a city bus rode by soon after, and I paid 25Q to ride to P. Barrios next to a man with his dog in a gunny sack. (Paloma her name, retriever-ish mix about 6 mo old, adorable, best behaved dog I’ve seen here) We packed that van, 28 people at one point, and only seats for 14. It was pretty awesome, in a I’m-covered-in-everyones-sweat sort of way.

Paloma Paloma

Anyway, hit Puerto Barrios, got dropped off in front of the harbor with 5 minutes to spare for the boat, and the first guy to approach me was from the Puerto Barrios-Punta Gorda boat company; exactly who I needed to find. I bought a ticket and he and I road around on motorcycle getting my exit passport stamp, telling a lady in a mask (and her 2 friends with m16 variants) that I didn’t have swine flu. I must have been convincing, because she didn’t even look at my face during the 2 minute interview. 80 Quetzales later, and 150 for the boat, I was throwing my bag into the front of a 15 seater fiberglass boat, taking quick pictures of the harbor (the only part of P. Barrios I ever really saw) and stretching for the jaunt across the Bay of Honduras. Things feel in place pretty perfectly this day.

The last leg of the trip passed pretty uneventfully – I rode the boat across the bay, thoroughly enjoyed being in the ocean again, watched the passing shore and few other boats do their respective things, and talked up a pretty Canadian girl who was doing exactly what I was. She taught English and various community aid-type programs, really didn’t like being in Honduras, but loved her kids and classes. It was from her that I found out I’d be needing to spend 3 days minimum in Belize to qualify for a new visa, which was both good (3 day vacation!) and bad (Holy shit I’m going to run out of money) information to know. I resigned myself to the fact that I really couldn’t change anything at this point if I had wanted to, and settled in to enjoy the surf and company.

 

Arriving in Punta Gorda around 3pm, my first impression was of a sleepy little town, with empty docks, few people in sight, and a lot of vintage-looking buildings right up against the water – no beach. It was sunny yet fresh, smelled of sea and salt, and was just mind-blowingly clean compared to my usual of the past month. No trash anywhere, nobody hounding people at the docks to buy goodies, nothing really aside from the customs officials, and oh by the way they all speak English there, not Spanish. Didn’t stop me from starting up a conversation in Spanish with the woman at the entrance desk, but when she ended it with “And by the way the official language is English” I felt like something of an idiot. Great accents, beautiful town, brutally expensive exchange rate. (From the only money-changer in town, I could only get 1 Belizean Dollar to 11 Lempira, an awful rate) I finished the bureaucratic maze in good time, got my piece of cheese, and set out into the streets to find bed, food, party, in that order.

First travel agency I found I walked in and asked for a list of hostels and cheap hotels. The girl inside seemed dreamy, wasn’t much help, and pretty much punted me down the road to the next place. It occurs to me now that she was stoned out of her gourd. Still, I got one valuable name off of her – the Nature’s Way – cheapest beds in town, and the only legitimate hostel. I resolved to sleep there, but when I’d made the half-mile walk I found it full and partly under construction. Turned around, ½ mile back to the main part of town, found another travel agency. This guy was great, German accented English and a monster of a man, but everything he offered was $40 and up a night, US dollars. In my monetary world, I might as well be sleeping in the Taj Mahal eating gold-leafed caviar and wiping my ass with benjamins – it’s just way out of my world right now, doesn’t even qualify – the Pluto of my cashflow solar system. The best piece of information I got out of him was that one local restaurant, Grace’s, sometimes rented rooms for the cheap. I thanked him and set out. 4pm.

Made it to Grace’s, got a room for 34 Belize, $17US, changed over all my Quetzales, even the cool dollar coins, and went to drop my stuff off in the room. First impression – my room is apparently in the middle of a construction site. Second – I’ve gone up the wrong stairs and am definitely in the middle of an active construction area. The workers gave me a few looks, I retreated downstairs and took the other stairs – found #14 on the second floor, one of 4 completed rooms in what looked to be a future 20 or so. Laid fully clothed on the bed, closed my eyes, took 20 breaths. Got up, took a drippy shower, washed my shirt, socks, boxers. Used my socks as a washcloth and left everything drying in the bathroom. At least this place gave me a towel and soap – moving way up in the world. No cigarette burns either. I did some exercises, stretched my back and legs, burnt time until 5pm, then went out searching for food. Went out loaded – journal, camera, phone, money, knife, my full traveling kit. Not sure why.

Found a Chinese restaurant a few blocks down Main street, legitimate Chinese, the barely-able-to-communicate-across-either-language-barrier sort of joint, run by a family of 6, who also owned the bar next door, full of slot machines, video poker, and a pinball machine. Like a poor-man’s Dave and Busters, but more smoky and depressing. I ordered sweet and sour chicken unsuccessfully 3 times before one of the sons came out to hear what I had to say, repeat it back to me, point it out on the menu, and end up giving me something delicious and chicken but utterly unrelated to anything I had ordered. And a coke instead of iced tea. No bother, it was all really good, and only 15 Belize. (Just cut everything in half for $) Full of food, anticipation, and a screaming desire to meet new people and make bad decisions with them, I set out to find the last thing on my impromptu checklist, a party.

As it turned out, I made it to the beach and was so excited about being near the water again that I tried writing, couldn’t find the words, and threw a stick for a while with a passing dog. After a little bit sitting on a washed up tree stump and contemplating getting on that whole party search, I was approached by a wild-haired, top-4-front-left-toothless man on a bicycle. He wore a bright new red and black NY Yankees fitted cap, big glasses, and baggy, grungy everything else. He looked like nothing so much as a down-on-his-luck Little John, devoid of his so-called East Side Boys. This was Murphy, and he was my first friend in Punta Gorda.

“Ey mon, whatchu be doin’ down there?”
“Just hanging out, sitting on a tree. Relaxing man, kicking back.”
“Dat’s good call mon, it be real true pretty out here.”
“Yeah, for sure. What’re you up to?”
“Just riding my bike, lookin’ for people who be wantin’ to have a good time.” Seriously? Lucky day.
“Well, what kind of good time you have in mind?”
“I know da best bar in town mon. I show choo, but choo gotta buy me a beer.”
“Deal. Where we going?”
“Da Reef mon, everyone goes to the Reef.” Lead on, my friend.

Murphy wasn’t lying about the Reef bar – barely 200 yards away, on the second floor of a coffee-selling collective, hanging almost over the sea, pretty much invisible to those who weren’t looking for it, and what an awesome little bar it was. Murphy and I got there and he hung out on the back porch while I bought us two of the local Belikan stouts (6.8%) for $1.75 each. Still too rich for my blood, but a solid beer. Murphy and I shared a few wrinkly cigarettes and he told me about how his family didn’t like to see him around, how they wouldn’t feed him if he showed up at their houses, and how he shined shoes, recycled, and scrounged to survive. “Jah told me” he said, “Jah told me that you got ta love everyone equal. Like ya brudda, even if dey won’ love ya back mon. Jah gave us dis world tah love, an I goin’ tah love everyone as long I live.” He also talked about his business schooling at the University of Belize, dropping out to work, coming to God (Jah) and living out of doors because he gave away everything he had to people. He tried to give me his pack of cigarettes a few times, but I wouldn’t take them. Eventually I gave him $10 Belize, and he went to go buy dinner. I saw him again days later, but not for any protracted length of time – the feeling I got off of Murphy is barely explainable – I felt in the presence of someone wholly more noble, wholly more moral then myself. Sure, Murphy lived a hard life, was unloved, and exists barely, day to day – that didn’t matter to me so much as his conviction, his love, his unfailing desire to help and give thanks to God. He is one of the true saints, the ones who never go appreciated, die alone, and yet make a difference in the lives of all who allow them to. Stay classy Murphy, and you’ll find your reward some day.

I do especially owe Murphy for introducing me to the crew at the Reef – Jill owns the place, Sal bartends, and Justin, Bigs, Emily, Concha, and dozens of others made up the cast of intellectuals, musicians, potheads, scuba divers, local guides, tourists, burnouts, English nurses, ex-cons, drunks, and all-around fabulous people I met over the next few days. The main characters: Jill was one of those visitors who never left – fell in love with the place, bought a bar, and had been working there and traveling around the world ever since. Sal is a local guy, hair in an intricate weave on top of his head, tall, dark, not much of a talker, to me at least. Paul is a tech guy – works for an NGO, does photography and helps local musicians in his free time. He kept telling me to head over to Rosewood recording studio, which I never got around to doing. Peter was there too, real proper English chap, pronounced his name so well it took me 3 times to pick up what he was laying down. These four were hanging out, shooting the shit, sipping Belikans (it’s awesome, there’s only 2 beers, so you just ask for “beer” or “stout”) when I arrived with Murphy. After he left, I met them at the bar, and they gave me hell for hanging out with Murphy, buying him things, being a dumb tourist. I told them about how I thought he was a saint, and they asked me if I always misjudged people and made bad money decisions. I pointed out that I was a recent college graduate living unemployed in Honduras – bad decisions are a defining personality trait. As we sat and talked and bonded, more people began to show up, first the regulars, then the hired band, then a whole lot of out-of-towners.

That first night I met everyone I could, drank beers, listened to live reggae beats and later a Garifuna drum contest between a few guys. We danced Punta and laughed, whooped, yelled, knocked things down. We were surrounded by cheap beer, good company, beautiful music, and more then a little illicit activity. Out for air on the balcony, a guy came up alongside me, gave me the once over, then with a quick nod threw out that ubiquitous “So whatchu need?” I sized him, smiled, and said I was just there to have a good time, didn’t need anything, but thank you. He grinned wide, gold tooth showing front and center – there was an R in it – and told me that he worked with that too, if ya know what he means. I did, but my interest in prostitutes has never been high, and this Friday night was not the time nor place to catch an STI. Plus – broke. I politely brushed him off, but that didn’t stop him or a half dozen other people from offering me coke, ganja, girls, and other things only hinted at over the course of the night. The illegal substance/activity scene is strong if you know where to look, apparently, and the outside balcony between Reef and a few other buildings in PG were as good a place to look as any I found.

At the same time, it’s not so much an illicit substance scene as an everything goes sort of place. In PG (everyone calls it this, saying Punta Gorda = you’re a tourist) there’s a real relaxed atmosphere on everything, so long as you’re not stupid about it. This explains why everyone I met smoked pot, why ganja sellers approached me 4-10 times a day, why it literally grew in back alleys despite being illegal, officially. The cops have better things to do, so as long as you’re not blatant about it, anything goes. It seemed to work out quite nicely for everyone involved, especially if you were into blazing up between dance sets. (Full disclosure – yeah, I did smoke the herb in PG. Shocker, I know.) It was alright – nothing like the California club stuff, but cheap, everywhere, and a great way to make friends. Thinking about it, if not for smoking pot and drinking, I wouldn’t have met nearly anyone on this trip. Gateway drug my ass – more like an open invitation to good times, fast friends, and a whole lot of adventures. At midnight the police showed up to close down the still-raging party, and while some people hiked off to visit the Sports Bar, which had a license to be open all night, I trudged back toward Grace’s, got semi-lost, eventually found my dingy little room, showered and passed out. Day accomplished.

Me and Murphy Me and Murphy

Day 3: 23 May, 2009
Waking up, I was impressed at how good I felt. Did a light workout, stretched, shook out the cobwebs, and showered. The bed had done something awful to my back, and the whole place depressed me, so I didn’t spend much time in the room – by 9 I was ready to get out of there. Packed up everything into my bag, damp clothes last, left my room key at the desk, and took off. I didn’t have the foggiest idea where I would go, but I was going to find that out, I reasoned. First thing I wanted was some breakfast, but as I was walking out of Grace’s all the power in town went out. This of course meant nobody could cook anything, but I tried a few joints anyway. Eventually came to The Snack Shack, where they had a few things available, and I got OJ, coffee, and fresh chocolate cake since I figured that was better then cookies or brownies at 9:30am. Looking around, I didn’t see any table open, but there was one with just a pretty young lady, and I went there. Here’s how I met Lil:

“Hey, can I sit here?”
“What? Oh sure. Please.”
“Thanks, everyone else was popular and brought friends. We can pretend for right now if you like.”

That got me a laugh, we did the introduction thing, and it turned out she’s in Belize with the Peace Corps – small world. She’d come to town from her small site in the mountains, no power, no running water, to check her email, call family, and enjoy modern society for a day. Of course, major power outage killed that, and now she was just killing time to see if it went back on. I commiserated as best I could over the best damn chocolate cake I’ve had in a long time. “OJ, coffee, and chocolate – nice breakfast you’ve got there” she teased. I offered her some cake, and we shared that and our stories. Turns out she was about done with her service, had had 2 fantastic years and was 1 month short of completing. She was blown away by my story, telling me that Belize hadn’t kicked anyone out in at least 2 years, that the country director was like a close friend to everyone. I sighed, smiled, and shrugged it off. Sure, the story sucks for me, but it’s pretty funny in an out-of-nowhere sort of way. After an hour or so of milking our meager breakfast and even less substantial personal connection, we parted ways, she to her mountaintop Maya village, me to… where was I going anyway?

Doesn’t matter. I’d found out the night before from the Reef regulars that this weekend was apparently the Cacoa festival, a celebration of the main crop in the Toledo region of Belize, and a shot at diversifying the farming economy with some eco-tourism. It was a good idea, well-promoted and funded, and so it was turning out pretty huge. Everywhere I walked I saw tourist types, cameras out, gawkers, people looking lost, excited, bored, and generally out of place. I would have laughed at it all, but I was wearing a wide-brimmed hat and carrying a giant bright red backpack. Hello kettle, you’re looking mighty black today. Passed the central park and clock tower, and man was it getting crowded. Tents being set up, a stage covered in speakers and equipment, and an ever-growing crowd convinced me I ought to come back, but I was bound and determined to get myself a room at the Nature’s Way before the night was out, and so I hoofed it across to the quiet side of town and that’s where I met Diane.

Well, not really met – the day before she had been the one to tell me that there was no space in the hostel for me, and I’d gone on my merry way to the aforementioned good times. However today I actually met her, exchanged names, talked like normal people. At the end of 20 minutes, and yet another retelling of how I ended up living in Honduras, she offered to let me live in the upstairs section of the hostel, but warned that it was empty and under construction. The price, 25 Belize was by far the best in town, and so I happily accepted. A few minutes later I went upstairs, saw the crumbly floors, bunks all over, and amazingly cool little corner room overlooking the harbor and all of the beach side of town, and was in love. Sure, the shower was a piece of PVC pipe with a ball valve on the end, and yes, half the lights didn’t work, and maybe there were clotheslines through the whole place and I slept on a small hard portable mattress. Fuck all that, it was an awesome little place, made better by the fact that I had it totally to myself. 20+ beds, and I was the only guest in that part – the workmen who lived there usually were gone for the holiday weekend, and so I got a whole lot of space. Spread my stuff out, hung out my own clothesline, hid valuables, and got into my sandals and a T, dressing for the tourist life. Everything stashed, I headed back out toward the festival, reggae beats, and the unknown.

My swingin' under-construction pad. My swingin’ under-construction pad.

 

Back at the central park things had gotten big fast. The whole place was ringed by booths, tents, palm-roofed stalls, and I wandered among the beer vendors, barbecues, cocoa wine sellers, and face-painting stands to catch a glimpse of the live band. I saw a few dark-skinned teens dancing punta, a guy with legit dreads singing and playing electric guitar while sitting in a lawn chair, 2 other guys beating Garifuna drums, and a keyboardist. There was also a white guy with a harmonica rocking out off to one side, and he was pretty good too. I let the music flow over me and wrote this:

5/23/09 – So here’s where I stand – I’m in over my head, I can’t afford the rent, and I’m out of food for the time being. But what I lack in material (bullshit) wealth I make up in loving friends, people who live in my world, and sympathetic hearts. Spiritually, intellectually, this is a fine place to be, and so I think 3 days here will suit me just fine. I could use the loose, liberal, drugged-and-liqued-up air to calm my spirits after 3 months playing good kid in Honduras. More later, I’m going to wander over to the Reef and see what’s happening there.

I didn’t though – right after getting up to walk away from a festival I couldn’t afford, I ran into one of the girls I’d danced with the night before. Emily? Let’s go with that – I met at least 3 of them, she can be one. She was there working with blind and low-vision kids, and was just enough of a bleeding heart to make me pay attention. Emily yelled at me while I was walking past, I looked up, smiled, walked over to say hi. She was under a little palm-roofed hut, running a booth to fundraise and inform the public about the problems her organization worked with, and had a game where you could pick rolls of paper off a board for 50 cents Belize, but after I watched a dozen little kids lose or walk away with sticks of gum or pens, I started sarcastically giving her hell for taking their money – she was good natured and took it. We talked for a while, nothing particular, I told her I admired her for doing this sort of work when I’d been failing so completely to gain footing in the NGO world. She smiled at that one, I offered to buy her a beer, and after sipping Guinness and some more idle banter, I left her to the festival, and made my way back over to the Reef.

Their money is pretty awesome too Their money is pretty awesome too.

 

When I got there some Rasta-looking guy I’d seen playing earlier was setting up a stool, mic, amp, and his guitar. Turns out that he’s a famous (local) musician, and was stopping by to give a show for the Reef because he liked the bar. I settled into the hammock and listened to him belt out Bob Marley, Beatles, Stones, a dozen other bands, along with some things he just made up himself. Fantastic artist, really knew how to work his crowd, and he got a few people to come up and collaborate with him. I laid back and soaked it all in, because it was a glorious afternoon. Sun, sea breeze, life music, new friends, and a whole life apart from mine. I’d stepped into another country and a whole other world. I almost took a nap, but decided I wasn’t that cool with the bar crowd. Said goodbyes during the musician’s break, and set out for the hostel thinking that a little mid-afternoon nap was entirely called for. Just needed to take the gorgeous oceanside walk back.

That’s how, sweaty, sticky, partway asleep, and smelling of cigarettes, beer, and bar, I met the Catholic missionary group that I was sharing a hostel with. Yeah, whoops. They were all sitting on the front porch as I came strolling up, and smiled at a couple hellos as I walked right past them into my second story hideout. I like making good first impressions, so I showered, changed, threw out a tweet or two, and came back down to try that one over.

“Hi guys, nice to meet you all. Sorry for running away earlier, but I don’t make a habit of meeting new people right after I come home from bars. Anyway, I’m k, what are all your names? And yes, I will be asking you this again.”

Went for laugh, got it, and we’re good. I sat down and met them, actually convinced them to play the name game, and still learned next to nobody’s name. I’m an idiot when it comes to this sort of thing. Consequently, I’m making all their names up completely, and likely half of them are going to be named Emily. Nice people all, but it was very quickly established that there was a great yearning gulf between the things I did and things they would even think of trying. The barhopping, traveling, adventure stories I was telling them went over well enough, but when I told them about going out to the Reef and seeing live bands, the first response I got was that they’d made a pact that nobody would drink or go to bars on their trip, as an expression of group unity. We were going in different directions, it would seem, and there were some pretty funny disputes we ran into together.

However, like I said, good people, and so I found myself getting into a terrifically long talk with them all, learning about their university, the Belize aid program they were a part of, the work they were going to be doing teaching and working with school children over the next two weeks. I was glad for them – remembering the first couple weeks of Peace Corps, I was a bit jealous even – these guys and girls were about to get real close, and that’s a cool feeling. Better yet, they had only gotten into town two days before I had, and most had never been outside of the states before. Fresh, wide-eyed, and about to have a great time. Having been forced into the same living space as them, I decided to make myself part of the crowd for the afternoon, and proceeded to get to know everyone I could. I could give them insight in the way of bad advice, tell them lewd and wild stories, possibly convince a few of them to broaden their experiential horizons, you dig? Yes, the desire to be a bad influence forced my hand, but I swear it wasn’t the main motive here. “There has to be something I write about,” I thought at the time, “that isn’t concerning drinking, listening to live music, or dancing at bars and festivals.” Left to my own devices, this trip was rapidly headed down that lazy path. I mean, not that that wasn’t fun, but surely the story would be better if I switched gears a little?

Life music at the Reef Live music at the Reef

It was in this spirit of adventure that I agreed upon attending mass with the Catholics that evening. It would prove to be a very enlightening experience for me but not in that “oh my god, it’s God” sort of way that presumably you’re supposed to be feeling in church? Fuck if I know – I’ll be bartending in hell, already called it. After everyone showered in shifts and dressed up kinda-sorta, we set out for the arduous 100 yard walk to the church, which we did as a group, presumably so as not to lose someone. Then we headed in to my first-ever Catholic mass in English – I’ve been attending the Spanish Catholic mass here in Pespire pretty much weekly, except for a gap after Semana Santa – and I really wasn’t prepared for what was about to go down. First off, we walked in together, and as each person filed down the row to take their seat in the pews, they all would stop at the end of the row, kneel, and bow a little to the altar. I’d never seen this before in my life, so I pondered it as I walked in and sat down like a normal person would walk into a building full of chairs and quiet people and sit down. Apparently that’s not looked well upon, and I attracted a few looks. Smooth.

After the service got started, I realized immediately that it was not going to be nearly so fun as in Spanish. For starters, there was no band, the songs were all words I knew the meanings of instead of just how to sing. Instead of amusing myself by trying to translate the entire sermon into English in real time, I did the reverse, tried to flip it to Spanish – considerably harder, but doable if not for the preacher himself. The guy was just hilarious because his voice was like an old Disney cartoon, his manner artistically overly dramatic, with great facial expressions, full body language, the whole deal – this guy was feeling the Holy Spirit, although he didn’t have a huge erection like the Little Mermaid priest, so there’s that. I couldn’t take him seriously – something about this man just got into the funny part of my brain and wouldn’t stop romping around like a red bull-addled toddler in a bounce house. Consequently I spent a large portion of the mass struggling to keep a straight face, and not look like the guy having too much fun in church, because lets face it – fuck that guy. Church is for serious faces, pensive, obedient, receptive demeanor, passivity and calm, and nobody likes the shithead who’s not fitting into that general scheme of things. Did a little meditation to smother the giggles, and I would have been fine if not for the fact that the guy had to keep talking – he’s the preacher! So long as I could hear his voice, I could not keep myself from imagining Donald Duck popping out of the back row of pews to take us all off to Mathmagic Land and the teach us about the secret lives of numbers.

I missed a lot of what was going on just because of how much fun I was having, and that’s a good thing. Now, it ought be known that organized religion and I go together like anti-globalization anarchists and world-killing transnational CEOs, by which I mean that while it would be a Friday night throwdown worth paying to see, but really you’d be better served by keeping us in separate rooms for the duration of the party. There’s a lot of aspects I don’t agree with, in/outgrouping, indoctrination of spiritual individuality, a general tiering of the social order, with themselves at the highest end and the rest of the world sloping off based on their similarity to doctrinal beliefs that can’t be argued with or disputed by virtue of their being the sacred all-knowing, all-seeing, perfect word of God, but I won’t talk about those because lets face it, nobody likes to fight about religion. I’m content to let the religious lead their lives, so long as they can restrain themselves from trying to exert control over me and mine. Oh yeah, and don’t idoctrinate your fucking kids – they accept everything you tell them as the absolute truth, and you’re destroying any chance they have of ever becoming critical thinking, logical adults. So seriously – stop.

In the meanwhile, attending church services in Spanish is nice because it’s very community and musically based, and I’m quite alright to sing and hear about the goings on of the town. I’m less into the sermons, because it goes back to the whole indoctrination thing – here’s the way you ought be thinking and acting about this subject, with some cryptic backing from this book – or at least that’s how it seems if you don’t take said book to be the answer to the great question, of life, the universe, and everything. Me, I still can’t even find the fucking question out, but I look at this sort of stuff and I know it isn’t my answer. Still, it was my weakness for pretty girls my age who aren’t already married and popping out kids that got me into this pickle in the first place, and so I bit my lip, practiced translating when I could, and generally followed the gestures of people around me. It worked, I guess, and we got all the way through cannibalizing Jesus’ flesh and blood for our own selfish desire to be clean. (except I didn’t, but got a blessing instead) Then we finished without the awesome call and response songs of Pespire, and everyone solemnly filed out. Not, however, before Jon gave me a lesson on how to do the proper kneel, and explained the significance. Basically it was because the bread is Jesus’ body, and it was warming in a little oven behind the altar, and therefore we were kneeling to Jesus. Alright, I gave it my best kneel – with the wrong knee – and that’s how I learned you always kneel on your left kneel to Jesus, because the right is for the king. I feel a bit better knowing I knelt to Elvis, to be entirely honest.

I followed the troops back to the Nature’s Way after being sactified, purified, blessed, and talking briefly with the preacher about his bandaged head. (turns out he’d had a wicked skin cancer, and had spent 3 months in surgeries, hospitals, and was just returning to his congregation) A few of us talked about the differences between this and other masses, they were interested in the Spanish experiences I’d had, and I heard a lot about how this or that aspect hadn’t been done correctly. Catholic missionary talk – they’re the experts, I’d gather. Anyway, it was interesting just to be around people whose lives were so similar, yet so untouchably different from my own. This guy Jon I mentioned, turns out he’s one of the group leaders, guides, whathaveyou, but he’s also very into philosophy, debate, and out-there sort of conversations. I strike one up with him as people are doing whatever it is they do to “get ready” to go places that isn’t just a sniff test, a pocket check, and a possible further action based on results of those. Meaning: we had a lot of time to wait.

Jon and I hung out downstairs and talked about the meanings of religion versus spirituality, and I learned pretty quickly that the hardest part of us debating things was that we were just coming at the entire conversation from different worlds. In his, the ultimate truth of everything is well known, laid out in a book of stories for the whole world to see, so long as they’re willing to. In mine, by contrast, there is this pesky little line of thought that says “If we know the book has been wrong before, if we’ve had to update it to keep it from being laughably out of touch with reality, then how can we put any faith it to be true and not the subjective creation of the writers and editors?” and so on and so forth. Logic, the burden of proof, systemic study, hypotheses, careful observation of repeatable natural phenomenon as the means to discover truth about the world around oneself – none of this mattered to him as much as the book and the words of those whose interpretation of it he has chosen. It’s a hair-raising realization to make about the perfectly normal, nice, educated person sitting across from you – the “holy fuck, this person does not even subscribe to remotely the same view of the world I do, and further, his is completely unburdened by reality.” “There’s got to be a way around this,” I think, but there isn’t – we can’t agree except to agree to live with our disagreements and coexist. It’s nice when everyone agrees to be peaceful, but how about when they’re not? How do we solve a disagreement if someone isn’t nice? How do you combat diametrically opposed views without resorting to combat? Can we stay non-violent in the face of violence, even when part of society is trained to view all warfare as inherently spiritual conflict? I’ll get back to you.

The point is, they were going out to a group dinner and I invited myself along, more or less. I didn’t want to eat alone, so more friends were to be made. It just works out nicely. Anyway, I fed off their good vibes, we ate at a really decent, cheap place, that I can’t remember the name to but I know where it is – be on main street, walking in the direction from Grace’s hotel toward the central park, go past the clocktower, keep walking through the merging streets and it’s straight ahead. Good food, $3B burritos are way worth it. We spent a long time there though, since we were a group of 18, and being as it was a late and hungry hour, we spent far too much time talking about food. I’m not sure what the problem was at first, we couldn’t get a waitress for over half an hour since there were maybe 5 other people in the restaurant, but eventually we ordered and burnt a lot of time answering questions posed, such as “if you were any x, what type/amount/variety/ of x would you be?” I was yellow, Ethiopian food, and Andy Dufrain from A Shawshank Redemption. These were accepted as good answers, I hope. I had fun. Oh, and the restaurant had a bunch of little 10” TVs playing old American action movies dubbed and subtitled in Spanish at low volume hanging from the ceiling. Distracting little bastards; I’m trying to talk to people and my eyes keep doing that involuntary little “moving shiny objects” twitch to look up at the idiot box. Food wasn’t bad once it came, and the table broke into small groups, chatting about what have you. After we finished, Jon embarrassed himself by yelling just slightly too loudly about chocolate-covered bananas, and got shit for it. I excused myself, thanked them all for their company, and invited anyone who would like to come out and see the live band performing in the Reef that night. No takers. Well, I did try…

Went outside, spoke with the staff in Spanish, paid, gave a dollar tip on a $10 tab and the lady at the counter acted like I was some sort of generosity machine slinging money around for fun, and I felt like a cheapass for tipping so low, and the whole group came out right then. I don’t know if it was awkward or not, but it felt like it ought to have been – I had just said a great goodbye, invited them to come out and have fun, gotten blank stared out of trying that again soon, and now we were all standing in a line to pay. Clean breaks are kind of my style, and this was rapidly turning into a dirty ugly one, so I excused myself, took a walk down to the beach, bars, and bums that I made up my scene down here. To the Reef!

I got there a few minutes later – small town, it wasn’t a big walk – and there were a few guys setting up instruments, speakers, mics, for a live set of some sort. I talked to Sal, got a beer, and found the rest of the familiar faces out on the balcony, passing around something that might be loosely defined as a cigarette and telling stories. I settled in, told everyone about the missionaries and how we needed to enlighten some religious minds, and got roundly laughed at. I guess this same university group has been here to PG a few times and they never integrate with the community – a fucking pity, since that’s step one of every successful aid program – and they’d all pretty much given up on inviting them out to meet the town – why invite people who you know are going to just turn you down? The missionaries kept to themselves the entire time, every time, and in doing so, really blunt any positive impact they might desire to have.

I mean, I am by no means a master of the aid game, as evidenced by the complete lack of actual work I’m doing in the field right now and my general lack of professional qualifications, demeanor, genetic makeup, but if I have learned one thing down here it is that you will not get anything done without involving the parents, and without involving the community at large. You can’t come over here and do a 2 week project that stands on its own legs after you leave – in 2 months training in Pespire we barely scratched the surface on that aspect of development work, and nothing we did there will really stick consequently. A program that stays together needs a lot of people willing to give their time and energy to keeping it together. For that to happen you need people who are trained and willing to do that work, and before you can even get people willing you’re going to have to show them apparent, positive results, and so on, this is wordy. The point is that it is a long process, and the whole mess lives or dies based on how much you can get the community to internalize it and adopt it as their own. If you can’t do that, then your program is going to come to a screeching halt the second you leave. I don’t say this to knock all of the university students who go off and build houses or teach kids for 2 weeks on summer break, but just to point out the reality that these programs aren’t the best way of going about things. Anyway, sorry, derail, narrative flow mortally wounded, not yet dead. Vamanos.

There we were then, sitting high above the edge of the water in the warm, gorgeous Belize night, laughing, talking, as the live reggae came pouring out in waves from the bar. The conversation ebbed and flowed, the ocean reflecting out behind us, and I couldn’t have been happier with any of it. I’ve rarely felt so welcomed as I did in PG, and such characters! Dillon was one of the more mysterious denizens of the Reef. I started up a conversation with him at one point because I’d noticed him come in with some friends, then immediately bank off to sit by the himself at the edge of the group, saying nothing. Hoping to prompt some sort of interaction, I asked him something vague, a “hey man, what brings you to PG?” sort of question, and got a hell of a response. First, as I’m asking the question, I just now seeing this man up close, and he’s very big, dressed in baggy everything so he could be carrying most anything, and he has a few prominent tattoos for good measure. Pretty intimidating guy up close.

Then there’s his response – “I just got outta prison, mon. Nowhere else ta go, so I’s staying wit ma friends here.” What for? “Marijuana mon, I has three pounds of it in ma suitcase when the police catch me Fuck mon, I’s going to Guatemala too when dey catch me. Free years in der mon, free years! Fuck mon, I fucked up mah whole life…” and he teared up a bit, looking away from the rest of us. Shit, what could I even respond to that with? Moreover, how does a man appropriately sympathize with someone who ruined their life in substance trafficking while holding said substance? Is there correct posture for this sort of thing? I said something that smacked of platitudes and lack of experience in the sort of problems this man had dealt with – just another dumb uncultured American moment. My bad.

Dillon turned out to be a pretty cool dude though – we shared a bench, him hand rolling fondu (this is neither spelled correctly nor the right word) cigarettes with still-moist tobacco leaves, and I was smoking my mental ones and finding something incredibly interesting about the inside of my Stout bottles. I felt like an ass, so I was content to let him sit there and concentrate on his thing, sipped my beer, watched the sea and sky. Eventually, about the time I was considering heading in to see if the dance scene was working, he turned to me and asked if I smoked. I declined, he pushed, I took it from his hand. Lit a match, inhaled, and surprise, this cigarette isn’t. Really fucked my head up too, not expecting it, since it was essentially a cigar with ganja in it. Coughing, smoke out the nose, I handed it back to him as he slapped his knee and laughed at me. “Fuck mon, you never did dis before? Oh shit!” he chortled. “Rarely on accident,” I said, as smoothly as a guy can when he has to cough before, during, and after the statement. He laughed though, and launched into a talk about his band, the other musicians at Rosewood, his old drug operation, smuggling things internationally, all sorts of crazy topics that I’d never get to learn about without meeting characters like Dillon.

At some point, I had to move inside. The conversation wasn’t bad, but I didn’t want to get completely retarded, I wanted to dance and meet people and enjoy the party at hand. Extricating myself from the smokers, I headed into the bar and hung out near the side watching the band perform. They were real good, probably better from where I was, but definitely putting out some danceable beats. Only problem, nobody was dancing except for a man who I’m fairly sure was homeless and only being tolerated because he was dancing an absolutely insane little dance right in front of the band. Actually, this was less of a problem and more entertainment for everyone, but I did want to dance, so I started scanning the place for anyone I might know who wasn’t working. Across the bar (lit only by sets of Christmas lights at this point) I thought I saw some of the girls I had danced with the night before, so I headed over to say hi. Approaching their table, I realized that these were entirely new people just after I could reasonably walk to another destination. My choice was to keep walking up to them and make new friends, or take some awkward turn into a corner of the bar where nobody was. I thought about it too long, because one of them was looking directly at me as my brain stitched gears to do something, anything, now!

“Hi, nice to meet you all, K’s the name. I thought you three were my friends, but then I realized you weren’t. You ought to be though.” And then I took the 4th seat at their table. Call it the “all in before the cards are dealt” school of meeting people for the first time. That’s how I met 3 English nurses, at least one of whom was definitely named Emily, working temporarily as scuba dive instructors/expedition guides in the Caribbean and spending every other weekend in PG, mainly at the Reef. I gave them what might as well be the standard who-I-am speech, from wannabe writer to joined/kicked out of Peace Corps, to in Belize on vacation to renew visa. It’s like a really condensed 3-6 months of my life that I end up telling everyone eventually. Concluding that, we talked about all sorts of things that were probably more significant at the time (I hope) and by then the dance floor was starting to fill out, so I asked them to come dance with me, and we did. Not strictly, and perhaps not even loosely partner dancing, really just a lot of people moving to the beat, laughing, singing, showing off. I spent a lot of time out there, really only stopping to get drinks and badger, cajole more people to get out on the dance floor. I also remember speaking Spanish to a Catalan girl and being really excited – she was the only person I spoke at length to in it the whole time I was in Belize, and I had some ridiculous worries about losing the whole language in 4 days.

That’s pretty much how the rest of the night went, with the police showing up again at 12:01, first offering to allow us to stay open for a small amount of money, and then shutting things down when nobody seemed up to bribe them. There went the party, and Pulley’s YSC went on repeat in my head as I searched in vain for the girl I had been talking to before they broke up the show. Gave up – I took the walk, breathed sea air back to the hostel, and sobered up, cooled down so I could perhaps get some sleep. Instead I ran into one of the missionaries (Mike?) outside writing on the front porch. We struck up a conversation for a while, but I wasn’t up for it and was upstairs asleep by 1am.

The Reef The Reef

Day 4: 24 May, 2009
By 7am Sunday, I was awakened abruptly and unable to get back to sleep on account of the church bells and enthusiastic singing across the street. Don’t get me wrong – I’ve had much worse alarm clocks then hymns and bells, but it was more that this was the day I’d been planning to sleep in, do some afternoon activities and laundry, and relax before my Monday journey back into Honduras. The plan was to make it from PG, Belize to Trujillo, Honduras in one fell swoop of 3 countries, 12-15 hours and I wanted to be plenty rested for that. Therefore it was only fitting that by 8:00, after maybe 6 hours asleep, I was up, showering, and getting ready to go make a day of things. It actually worked out very well for me – the night before a few people had told me about a Maya cultural day at the Lubaantun ruins close-ish to town. I’d actually promised to go, but had doubted I’d be awake and willing to take a 9am bus ride.

Instead, I took a walk, thinking I’d head back to the Snack Shack and actually get breakfast today. I brought practically nothing, no water bottle, no hat, as I was just going to eat anyway. As I passed the park, who do I run into but my entire group of missionary neighbors, sitting outside the clocktower. We exchanged greetings, and I asked them which bus they were waiting for. Lubaantun, same as I. Further, they told me the bus was supposed to come by well before 9, so I abandoned breakfast plans, bought some fresh apples and bananas for a dollar, and mowed through these as we waited. This “bus” I had heard so much about failed to materialize, so a few of us started playing Egyptian Rat Screw, which sounds so intriguing but is actually just a card game I’m really good at losing. You see, it’s all about paying attention and slapping things, and I’m consistently 1-2 seconds behind the serious players because my head is off somewhere else. Therefore I mainly ate fruit while everyone else played cards, and talked various inanities. I kept pondering going back to get my hat and water, but I figured that if the advertisements said food, beverages, crafts, and goods would be on sale, I would find some way to survive.

One of the things that impressed me about this group was their consistent ability to entertain themselves. Time to wait? K scribbles notes furiously to keep up with the pace of life, but everyone else brought books, games, music players, cards. I struck me as funny, just because I’m again, the opposite. A pen, something to write on occasionally, maybe snake on my old Nokia, but otherwise I’m left to my own devices on the entertainment front – plus, you can’t carry all that stuff around in Honduras in most parts if you don’t want it taken from you. I felt like I was living on the edge just having my camera around in Belize! Nobody uses those white Apple iPod headphones, they’re a bullseye and a neon “come fuck with me” sign rolled together – a robbery spliff, if you will. Anyway, I guess I just wasn’t used to tourists, or even Americans. The Peace Corps group wasn’t very representative of mainstream American society, plus we all were taught to hide everything of perceived value. Thus, I haven’t seen a big American presence since leaving the states, and let me tell you, ya’ll stick out like a peninsula. A fucking island in a foreign city, with cultural walls thick and intimidating. I was just starting to realize that being with them wasn’t going to let me interact with people as I wanted, when a change of scenery came driving down Main street.

Turns out the bus came at 9, so after a solid 45 minutes sitting and getting antsy we finally boarded the bus to Lubaantun, wherever that was. Oh, here’s another thing – these guys were organized in their tourism, doing a set schedule every day, making sure to maximize the amount of activity each day. How crazy is that? Who does these sort of things? Yeesh, I don’t get planners – where is the fun in getting up every morning and knowing what you’re going to do in your free time? Much better to just go and see where you end up landing at the end of the time and money you have available. On the bus, I sat off in the back, but that wasn’t an original idea, and I was soon surrounded by people – more specifically, by gringo tourists. It wasn’t just the missionaries, and in fact they were definitely not the worst example of the gringo tourist phenomenon. Instead, that honor goes to four shit-for-brains assholes who got on the bus late and ended up standing right next to my seat the entire ride out.

It wasn’t anything specific they did in their attempts to send me into a blind rage, but more of an overall demeanor, attitude, method of living and breathing sort of dispute between myself and these jackasses. It’s like the gringo island that I mentioned groups of Americans creating, except this version is infinitely more obnoxious because the group is actively pushing themselves, and their way of life, on the world around them. Easy example – loud, profane, jocular young American male banter, yelled above the general din of the bus, is a fantastic way to alienate most of the people around you, especially when you’re very obviously talking so that everyone can hear. Worse still – if you’re a group of real idiot gringos, you can shout derogatory things about the town, its inhabitants, or specifically its women, in plain English, in front of people who, despite being brown, speak English as their primary language! Fuck man, these guys were bringing down a shitstorm on themselves, and too dumb to even notice. This never sits well with me, partly because I do share a nation with these simians, and also because I was sitting surrounded by white faces, in the half of the bus talking shit about the other half. Not a grea situation.

Still, I almost kept my tongue in check until one of them was talking about his car that his parents bought him when he went off to college and how it sucked that he couldn’t get his latest alcohol-induced damage covered under warranty. He went on to say that cars were impossible to take care of, and mechanics were all out to rip you off, and so the only thing to do was to get his parents to buy another car. That did it because I was counting the $40 US I had brought with me and telling myself that it had to pay my $25 in hostel fees, lunch, dinner, and this little jaunt and also that it couldn’t possibly. I turned to this cocksucker, big sweaty pimply red-haired sunburnt university t-shirt wearing example of all that is good and pure in America, and started giving him shit for being an idiot and unable to repair his car. “Look man, if you’re dumb enough to break it, and you can’t fix it, that’s just sad. I mean, I understand daddy’s money is great for sliding through life without ever having to take care of things, but car repair is pretty essential to normal life.” He got a bit peeved and mouthy, so I started telling him about what an idiot he was making of himself on the bus. A few locals laughed, and for a little bit I wondered if I might have to take part in a busfight just based on the redness of the strawberry man’s face. He didn’t do anything, however, and he and his friends continued their successful effort to become the biggest idiot Americans I met on this trip. (Bitching about dirt roads – another highlight) Congratulations Philip from South Carolina, you and your 3 friends are part of the reason foreigners think all Americans are oversexed, undereducated, pampered, rich morons. Go take your dad’s toaster in your dad’s bathtub and celebrate.

Lubaantun ruins, Belize. Lubaantun ruins, Belize.

Arriving at Lubaantun was a blessing, because it meant I got off the bus and could mingle with people who weren’t culturally obtuse. The bus had stopped where one dirt road met another, muddier, narrower, grassier. There were a few houses off a distance, but otherwise nothing human aside from the roads and a sign that read “Lubaantun 1 mile.” We deboarded, I was acutely aware of my lack of hat or water. Away from the coast it was muggy, hot, and dehydrating. There was a shuttle, but I noticed that only the Americans were getting into it – the locals were all walking the 1 mile. I took off on foot, sticking to the shade where there was any, skipping puddles of mud in the deeper car tracks. The path was really just carved into the vegetation, and so we got to walk past a lot of pretty scenes, some great views of the rolling hills and mountains beyond. The birds are amazing down here – I wish I knew anything about the flora and fauna of Central America, because the species I see are just gorgeous.

I was surprised that a lot of the missionaries came walking along behind me, but then I realized their predicament – the shuttle held probably 15 people, which meant only about 25-30 could ride in it in Central America. Their group of 17 would probably end up split, people would get left or end up sitting in each other’s laps. Easier to just walk it, and so a lot of them did. I ended up in a conversation with 2 of the girls, names optional, (Emily?) who mentioned how rude and obnoxious the guys on the bus had been. I told them about my gringo scale, where I rank white people I meet on a scale of 1 to gringo, where gringos are fat, dumb, and arrogant. They laughed, but then asked how I was grading them. I said they weren’t failing so far, but they had to watch out not to hang out only with other gringos, or they’d fall into that trap – also told them to let their guard down sometimes, or they wouldn’t even experience another culture. I didn’t realize how much I miss pretty girls that I can legitimately communicate with until about this point – it’s nice not to have to rely on awkward Spanish and smiles to get one’s point across, and I’m a hell of a lot smoother in English, since I can’t help but say what I mean in Spanish. Think about it – how often do you speak to the opposite sex and say only straightforward, no-nonsense things? Fucking never, if you’re smart. It’s a good barricade to anything romantic, at least if you’re an ugly mug like myself.

Anyway, we made it to the ruins, and my first impression of them was a grassy parking area, a van that said “Husband 4 Rent” and a lot of people setting up booths and tables. I was a bit nonplussed, even moreso when I had to pay my last $2 Belize to get in, as they wouldn’t accept my US dollars (only place that wouldn’t my whole trip!) This left me in the interesting situation of being in the middle of the sweltering jungle without water, a good hat, money, in fact anything except my camera and notebook. Time to get to exploring. Hiked up a decent hill to get to the actual ruins, and spent a few minutes at the visitor’s welcome center/museum reading about the history of Lubaantun but really hiding from the sun a bit. 10 o’clock burning sun isn’t my friend out here. After killing an overly-sufficient amount of time reading and talking to a park ranger, I headed up another curving slope to see the main sections of the ruined Mayan city.

For my first Mayan ruins, Lubaantun was pretty awesome – they were pretty battered and collapsing in places, having long subsided into their own foundations under the weight of centuries – but still standing tall in many areas, orderly walls and foundations of smooth cut, stacked stones. Some of the piles were 50 feet tall, and I reflected on my intense gratitude at not having been the poor bastard slaves who had had to build this rich man’s home/holy man’s temple. Sometimes I forget how much worse I could have it then this life, but stuff like this brings it home. The museum placards very clearly stated that the rich and holy lived atop the mounds, and outside of the city proper would have been the poorest, the laborers, the slaves and servants. Thus, I spent my day wandering away from the tourists and the cultural celebration, circling the ancient city, listening to the stones and trees tell their slow, quiet stories. I found the narrowest alleys, stood there imagining 10,000 people trying to bustle through this tiny gap, the frustration, jostling, pickpocketing, the clatter of humanity in close quarters. Eventually I found a shady spot in another side street overlooking the sacrificial plaza and the main temple, and sat down to write and think, meditate, and smoke a few mental cigarettes.

5/24/09 – This topic today comes prompted from the location I’m currently in, the Mayan ruins of Loobantoon, Lubaantun, or something like that. There’s a cultural day here, so I rode the bus out to see some ancient history and get pissed off at tourists… This brings me to the topic: What happens when a society dies? When can we know that it has? Is it when the cities fall into decay, neglect, ruin, or when the people don’t identify with the culture anymore? Or is the civilization dead when its values die? When does it happen, and what can we learn from the dead societies around us? Don’t build on hills that can’t stand the test of time, if this place is any indicator. The ruins have all fallen back into themselves. The world overgrows the ancient city, and the secrets of the dead stay hidden.

In a way, that’s better – mystery, adventure, the unknown are precisely so intriguing because of what we don’t or can’t know about them. The downfall of the Maya is a great mystery precisely because we don’t know the answer; the debate is the interesting, fascinating part, and one day the Truth’s mundanity will ruin that whole discussion for everyone. Oh well. All things, good and bad, are born, grow, live, apex, decline, and die. It makes no difference if you’re a fly or a planet, civilization, the universe, or just a dumb fucking gringo in Honduras (or Belize) – no matter what, you have a start and an end. Everything you do in between makes you you, and after you’re gone you’ll be misrepresented, misunderstood, and taken for something you never were by people who never knew you too well to begin with. So fuck it – live how it makes you happy, and be who you really are – otherwise you’re wasting everyone’s time, and that’s the only non-renewable resource.

So yeah, sat around and thought deep for a while. Met a 9 year old kid from another town whose family helped keep the ruins up, Peter was his name. He came up while I was writing and just plopped himself down next to me, saying “I’m Peter, you’re from the United States, aren’t you?” with outstretched hand. It was fantastic, I wish I could show you the mental photo I took, but I’m looking at it right now. Dark hair, dark eyes, but dressed pretty sharp, polo shirt tucked in, slacks, and shined shoes. He’s adorable, because he looks nearly identical to the ranger I talked to earlier except in miniature. Turns out, this is that guy’s son, and he spends all his free time here at the ruins – knows everything about them.

I talked to him a bit, then asked if he could show me some of the cool parts. That’s how I found out about the sacrificial plaza, the main temples, the royal quarter, the ball court, and all the sights I’d walked last and wondered about. Awesome little tour guide, and I realized at the end of it that I had nothing to give him, nothing to pay with. I went through my pockets, and I had bought a pack of gum, a real US pack of Stride gum from a PG market, because “holy shit, I haven’t seen one of those in months” was the prevailing thought at the time. In my other I had $40 US, my camera, and my pocketknife. Well, goodbye brand new pack of gum. Peter was stoked on it though, so I couldn’t feel too resentful to the kid. Still, he denied my request for a last piece and took off at that point, leaving me drymouthed and still waterless. With this as my exhibit A, I put my full confidence in little Peter’s ability to survive in a rough modern world of International Capitalism. Kidding, he was amazing, and a bright little guy. He’ll go far in life, so long as he never falls in with those crowds that spend all their time running off to places and having adventures, those crazy kids will wreck your life.

Water was a real issue at this point though, even though I’d bought a small bottle from the vendors at the entrance. Went and got another one, finally getting someone to break my $20 for like $5Belize. Got a wad of change, a water bottle, and a cup of cacao wine, which is really decent, if sweet enough to give me cavities on the spot. Still, cacao is a great crop, and I encourage you to buy the stuff from Toledo, Belize to support a lot of grow cooperatives, community development efforts, and raising the overall standard of living for the farmers out here. This would the pitch section of the story. So yeah, sat in the shade some more, after another hill climb, which had gotten seriously gotten larger and steeper since that morning, and watched cultural day. It was… colorful. The costumes, the crowd from all over the world, the band’s eclectic mix of marimbas, harmonica, wooden drums, guitar, and all manner of shakers and percussion toys. The dancers had these wild outfits on, multi-color patches, mirrors, jewels, glass, beads, and carried small unsharp swords which they swung at each other and clanged against each other as part of the dance and – best part to me – they wore ridiculous hats, half looking like nothing more then stepped pyramid piñatas, and the other half in what I’ll describe as Carmen Miranda’s headpiece except made with mirrors and sticks and shiny objects attached to a hat made out of all the scrap pieces of fabric one had in the sewing box.

They're "dancing" - cool costumes at least. They’re “dancing” – cool costumes at least.

They were warming up when I got there, dancers running around a bit, messing with their swords, while others stood and talked. A few looked like they were getting a crash course in how to do the dances. I sat down in the grass nearby, listened to the band, people-watched, daydreamed about getting a tattoo, actually like 4, and cast a few glances over this absolutely amazing brunette sitting on a hill nearby, but unfortunately I also saw her boyfriend, a guy who looked like he did those commercials for the new ab machine that will finally not make you a lardass, but you know his abs are the result of like 80 jillion hours of exercise because they’re each bursting out of his stomach like they’re trying to escape ala Alien. Yeah, big dude, ripply, and so I kept the looking at her to the bare necessary minimum. She could have modeled, possibly did, but what really got me was the choice of outdoorsy-yet-showing-off-all-my-assets attire, which was both disgustingly practical and fantastically revealing. Good form, random hottie I’ll never see again. Probably because of this, I didn’t realize right away that the dance “practice” I was seeing was actually the dance performance.

I got clued in when the dance stopped, a man got on the microphone and thanked the dance companies for their performance, and announced a lunch break for the performers who were getting out of costume and filing down the hill.. I’d been watching 45 minutes of actual, legitimate performance, under the impression that it was just a bunch of guys fucking around with fake swords and killing time. Nope, that was my bad – apparently the Maya didn’t like to have more then 2-3 people dance at a time, and have the others stand there and fuck around until their turn, and then not know the steps. Interesting culture, those Maya. Anyway, this guy talks for a little bit, part in English, part in Maya, and I can only assume they were identical sections because they sounded nothing like each other. There were a few Spanish words thrown in, names were in English, but the rest was completely foreign. Part of me hopes all the Maya parts were just jokes and insults about the people who couldn’t speak the language – I mean, that’s what I’d do if I knew some kickass language nobody else did. Anyway, he spoke for like 20 minutes about how cacao the cacao fest is, the cacaoity of the cacao farmers and the whole cacao community for that matter. Then he haded the mic off to a really smart lady who gave a speech on the diversification of the Toledo economy, the dangers of relying on one cash crop, citing the global financial, political, environmental, systemic collapse of Western economies. Belize, she warned, must branch out into tourism, diversified farming, self-sufficiency, and resource management. If the country was to weather this storm, it must take care of it’s own health, that of the community as much as the individual. It was a actually a fantastic speech, and only after the speech did I learn she’s the head of their commerce department. Wise choice – lady knew her economics, her global geopolitics, and her sustainable development. So good job Belize, you elected a good one – if only the US could be so lucky!

Nah, I’m just messing around, but lets take a detour anyway: Obama has reversed himself on almost every single one of his security, torture, anti-terrorism, legal, surveillance, wiretapping, warrantless-detainment, positions. He is continuing every one of Bush’s unconstitutional violations, and adding a few of his own. His legal positions are even further toward a unitary executive, beholden to no law, able to do whatever it wants without the support of the Congress or Judicial branches. As Nixon so famously put it, “If the President does it, it’s not illegal.” This position never died because Nixon never got punished for his misdeeds. Nor did Kissinger, instead he got the Peace Prize for being the best mass murderer in a generation. Every president since has acted as if this position is true, and nobody will ever truly challenge them. Reagan ordered the invasion of several countries, funded a secret war in Central America to topple and destroy another nation’s government by selling weapons to both sides in the Iraq-Iran war. His government got caught red-handed at it too, but Ollie North, and a complicit media and Congress let everyone off the hook who mattered. Bush 41 lied us into a Gulf War, also without Congressional approval, Clinton had his little police action over Kosovo, and a whole pile of missile attacks around the world, and Bush 43 got to start 2 illegal wars, and pushed the envelope by having secret services and private contractors torture an unknown number of largely innocent people, killing over 100 of them. It’s not like the torture was a new development on the part of the US, but it was never this open. Obama is continuing all of it, just moving the torture and “illegal detainment” to Bagram, Afghanistan. (read, unlimited solitary confinement without any trial or charges, usually initiated with intense torture, waterboarding, genital mutilation, confinement in small boxes, handcuffed, facefirst slamming into walls, sleep deprivation for weeks at a time, long-term submersion in icy water, all supervised by American doctors and psychiatrists.)

Presumably, this means that he’ll be able to close Guantanamo, and move the remaining largely un-prosecutable prisoners, none of them having been found guilty of anything before or during their 4-5 year sentences, to a different secret prison, one further away, where the human rights lawyers can’t fly to Washington or New York the same day to do talk shows and draw attention to the men committing suicide to avoid dying slowly in cages. At the same time, his Justice department is pursuing cases to block all release of photos of US torture, openly ignoring a pile of court rulings to the contrary, and is declining to prosecute anyone whose involvement in torture is now known, which includes former President Bush and his staff. Plus, they won’t do anything to the actual torturers, because “they were just following orders.” Oh hey, Nuremburg defense, didn’t see you there. Remember when you were thoroughly devalued and found inadequate in the cases of all those German and Japanese soldiers and leaders? Remember how we found that in cases of having been ordered to commit a crime against humanity, the mere presence of the order did not constitute a justification for having performed the act? Yeah, those Japanese soldiers who got killed for waterboarding Americans used this defense too. Too bad they didn’t have a world superpower standing behind them. The blood is now firmly on the hands of the Obama administration, and the only question that remains is how long the American people are going to delude themselves that he is different, that he has changed the course of America.

The long it takes us, the more damage we’re going to take, and the more enemies we’re going to make. What’s going to happen when America’s debts catch up to her, and she can’t afford to buy friends or have the biggest military on the planet? Why do I feel like We The People are going to wake up naked in a bathtub full of ice with no kidneys in the course of all this? Fuck if I know where its all going, but I’ll tell you this – the US government scares the shit out of me a whole more then any terrorists. Maybe we ought to take a step back and ask who is really hurting us, figure out where our real enemies are. I’d start by looking up at the those class warriors tearing apart programs for the poor, social welfare, and the like while awarding themselves huge contracts and bailouts. As Seneca wrote about ancient Rome, “Cui prodest scelus, is fecit.” The one who derives advantage from the crime is the one most likely to have committed it. Who’s making big bucks off of the wars, the financial crisis? How much do you want to bet that they don’t have a hand in making things how they are now?

Yikes, where was I? Oh yeah, daydreaming in the middle of this godawful, long-winded, endless marathon speech from the chief organizer of the Cacao fest, who was thanking everyone individually by first and last name and family history, I think. He lost me early, and I was hungry. Right as I was bailing to go eat at the bottom of the hill, who do I see but the missionaries, who I had nearly completely lost in my wanderings. We made it down the hill again, talking about whathaveyou, and got to the food stalls, with their delicious smells and strange looking dishes. I singled out one smell in particular as straight delicious, and followed my nose up to a little palm-roofed shelter with 2 women and a lot of pots, pans, and coolers around. I knew I’d chosen right because behind them, eating at a small table and on the ground, were all the staff and locals. I pointed this out to a couple of the missionaries, but they were a bit turned off by my greasy bowl of bone-and-skin chicken and vegetable soup with tortillas, and my odd-tasting orange juice. I don’t know what they ate, but what I got was delicious. Plus, you eat with your fingers and drinking off the edge of the bowl. It fantastic, if messy and staining. I ate with a local film crew, an old crotchety man, and a couple of shy women who didn’t engage in the conversation. The guys were great though, talking a nonstop game of abuse and jokes, making fun of each other and everything under the sun. I mainly just laughed, ate my soup, and tried to understand the old guy, cause he was the funniest in that he wasn’t joking, but was just sniping at everyone.

After that, got another glass of bittersweet OJ, checked if there was anything crafty worth my money, remembered I didn’t have any, and went back up to the ruins. The hill was gigantic by now, and made legitimately harder to climb by the fact that hundreds of people had tramped it all down into slick crushed grass and hard-packed mud. Got myself back into the shade of the visitor center after the hill, sticky and feeling flushed. Sat for a while, begged for a breeze, sipped water – killed time. It was about 1pm, and I was very done with the ruins. Don’t get me wrong, they were very cool, but I would have preferred to actually learn about them, explore, or do things relevant to the ruined city itself then sit and watch awkward dancing and listen to self-congratulatory speeches. Since the bus wasn’t coming until 4, I took a nap on the cement while some of the missionaries sat nearby and rested. It was a sweltering day, and I woke up drenched and thirsty. No more water. I went up to the ruins proper and sat in the darkest, shadiest part of the ruined central plaza. A small soccer field, it was surrounded by spectators, with the small group of dancers, musicians, roadie-types in centered along one side, also in the shade – those costumes must have been a nightmare. Sat and watched a bit more, wanted to write but found I’d lost my pen and had to sit there feeling naked, and suffered through seeing my writing in my head just as when I write, but having to let it pass and disappear for lack of ability to communicate it. I almost ran off and found someone to talk to about it, so as to remember at least a part, but I didn’t and so now all I remember is that it was prose, kind of. Also, half Spanish, half English, which I really haven’t successfully done yet. That wasn’t fun, and neither was sitting on the mound of damp earth watching the dancers wander in half-hearted circles and stand around looking confused. I left the music, dancing, and crowd behind, walked across the courtyard to see some chest-high carved blocks of stone lined up end to end, in a straight line and only a finger’s width apart. Crazy, the skill of those long-dead Maya stonesmiths.

Got back down to the visitor’s center to find my missionary friends mostly still in the same place, some dozing, some talking, though a few had gone off alone or in groups. I sat back down in the shade near the ones who weren’t checking their eyelids for cracks, said hi, and just tried to listen to their conversation. They were talking about religion, specifically how one judges the actions of self and others, and how one must behave if they are to live in accordance with their (Catholic) beliefs. It was interesting, because they really seriously debated what they could or couldn’t do if they wanted to live by the word of the gospel, and I sat there wondering why anyone would subject themselves to such a subjective, widely interpreted set of codes that really boil down to the prevailing social and political beliefs of your religious community. Think about it – the same book, the same words and phrases, mean slightly different things in each church, in each congregation, nation, region. The Catholics generally keep a tight ship in that regard, but one has only to look at the difference in public behavior between the last 2 popes to see that their beliefs too are subject to interpretation. Still, it was good to see them putting some thought into what they believed, and I only hope that they eventually hop up to the next step, that is to say the WHY of their actions and beliefs.

I kept my subversive thoughts to myself for the most part and just listened until one comment got me involved too much. “You see,” one of the girls said, “I find that I have to hold myself to a higher standard then other people because of what I believe.” I smiled at her and told her to be careful that higher standard didn’t ever slip into the illusion of a higher class. She went zero to pissed and started heatedly telling me that nobody had ever accused her of acting better then other people, and that wasn’t what she was talking about at all, and how dare I accuse her of that?! I was too hot and bothered to get hot and bothered about someone not understanding what I was saying, so I tried and failed to make her understand what I was trying to warn her about, that holding oneself to a high personal standard is good, but it’s very easy for that to slip into a general feeling of moral, spiritual superiority over those who do not share your beliefs. It’s not confined to just the religious – anyone who holds their beliefs as sacred or unfailing runs a very high risk of this. Still, she wasn’t listening, so I gave it up and switched gears.

Since I’d gotten her heated, and the rest of the circle was looking at me, I asked why women were unequal to men in the eyes of God. It went over like this – Why aren’t women equal? They are. No, they are commanded to be meek and serve their husbands, why? It just is a sign of respect for the father, a tradition. Why can’t they be priests? Because the Apostles were all men, per the will of Jesus. Well what did Jesus have against women? Nothing, he talked to them, interacted with them, that was unheard of at the time. Oh, so you’re saying this was a matter of social taboos: well in that case, what if Jesus wasn’t constrained by social pressure? Would he have chosen women to be apostles? After all, they’re much closer to being creators then men are – we’re just the catalyst. What if God is a woman? Those last ones came out all in a line, and went over poorly. First off, I was told, Jesus broke all the social taboos he wanted – if he had wanted women to be priests, he would have made them his apostles. Also, God is inherently and definitely masculine, because… well, there wasn’t a because, just a reference to the book again. And women are equal before God for reasons you just wouldn’t understand. It’s impossible to argue with someone who references their argument as evidence for itself, but hey, that’s why religion is based on blind faith and unswerving confidence in one’s knowledge of the absolute truth. I gave it up after it because clear that my questions were not appreciated and so I sat back a while the conversation switched topics to the work they were going to be doing.

Finally, a good hour after I had been bored enough to try shaking up people’s worldviews, it was time to get out of there. We walked back the same way we came in, scooting over to the side from time to time for trucks and the shuttle to pass. Reached the entrance in time to wait around 45 minutes for a bus to pass, and to see the shuttle unload 29 people from one of those 12 or 15 seat vans. Pretty awesome to see in action, the clown van. One of the guys, Saul, asked me if he could read out of my journal and I handed it over. He and a couple others thumbed through it a while as we loitered, too hot to do much, too bored too. Handing it back to me, he told me I lived a wild life and must have a lot of fun. One of the better compliments I’ve gotten, and I’m glad I give that impression off, anyway. There was an older white man sitting off to one side on what looked like the softest pile of dirt around, and I struck up a conversation with Eric as I took a seat beside him.

“Hi, how are you, K’s my name.”
“Eric, pleased to meet you.”
“Eric, you too. You live around here, or just visiting?” I did a little circle with my finger, presumably to signify around “here” in the ruins and jungle.
“Nope, I live and work in Texas, but I’ve been coming down here for over 30 years. Plan to retire down here.”
“Really? And what makes you keep coming back?”
“Well, all sorts of things. The people, the climate, but mainly because I can make a difference down here that I don’t feel I can back home. My work is mainly in international aid, and I do a lot of work with groups here in Belize. I take these vacations once a year or so to check up on the projects and just to come back and live here for a month or so. It’s a whole nother world down here.”
“You’ve got that right. So how long you down here for?”

So began a really intelligent conversation – Eric was a philosophy master’s candidate before he went into aid work and got 3 other master’s degrees. He’s late 50s, a lifelong student, and lifelong teacher, living a month a year in Belize, and the other mostly in the Texas he loves. Sun-fried skin, hair greying on the edges, he was still youthful – you could see it in his eyes. We talked a lot about the newer philosophical movements, particularly a spur-off of the women’s right’s movement, a branch of applied philosophy that has been giving hell to classic thought for 20-30 years now. He gave me a list of authors, but since I couldn’t write them down, all I remember is someone named Plumbwood and Emanuel Levinas. Levinas, he said, is where I ought to put some serious reading – it’ll flip some of the most basic of philosophical “truths” on their heads. I’ll get to it, I promised, after I’m tired of running. Then the bus came finally, we boarded, and I dozed on the way back to town. Consequently, I don’t think I paid for the bus ride home, I didn’t even think about it until now writing, but yeah, I must have gotten skipped when fares got collected. Partway back, I woke up from my half-sleep to find myself surrounded by the Reef regulars, who also happen to be the best photographers, promoters, and videographers in town, fancy that. They’d been at the event too, and apparently I’d been too grogged-out to recognize who was around me. Sweet. I met the most dangerous 17 year old Dutch girl on the planet, a couple of Swiss guys that talked like CA surfer brahs, and Peter was there, sleeping calmly with his head propped against the window as the others took extremely unflattering pictures of his face at bad angles. We passed the half-hour ride to town uneventfully, and said our goodbyes-for-now at the bus station – we all knew we’d meet up later.

Back at the Nature’s Way, I showered, shaved, and tried to look like I wasn’t living every day out of the same 8 articles of clothing. I had one clean set left, which I changed into, and then I washed everything else in the sink with bar soap. It worked about as well as you’d think – got some of the dirt and sweat out, but everything still looked as filthy as it still was. No matter, hung it all on a clothesline stretched across the abandoned second floor, did some pull-ups on the rafters, and set out to find some dinner before the final night of the Cacao Fest, and my last night in Belize.

Chinese food got me again, because I don’t have any ability to get it in Pespire, but really because it’s the cheapest food around. That’s not to say it was cheap – I paid roughly twice what I would for a meal in Honduras – but it was the cheapest dinner I could find, and I spent the rest of my change from Lubaantun on the food. I wanted to get a cup of green tea, so I fished around in my pockets for the other $20, but couldn’t find it. Checked other pockets, nothing. Fuck, left it in the other pants. Paid for my food, jogged it back to the hostel to grab my money. Couldn’t find it anywhere, tore my belongings apart, checked all over. It must have fallen out at the ruins, a gift to the Maya. I hope little Peter found it. Still, that was 10% of my American cash, and if I was hurting for money before, I was a lot more now. $40 Belize was the entire boat ride back, almost 2 nights at the hostel, or a day’s living. Now I was down to $140 bucks and 3000 unconverted Lempira, so $290 or so. Of that, $100 was in one bill, emergency money just in case, but practically unspendable so I’d wait until I really had to. I grabbed the last 2 $20s, went downstairs, and paid Diane for 2 nights, telling her I didn’t know when I might leave tomorrow. That left me with $30 Belize until I left tomorrow, and $3 in awesome decagonal dollar coins that I hoped to hold onto. (I think that means 10-sided. If not, that’s what I meant.) Pocketing this, plus camera and knife, I headed to the central park to see if the live music had started.

It hadn’t. There was a sound check going on, so I looped the park to see if I knew anyone. Didn’t see any familiar faces, but I did run into a few American tourists talking loudly about finding a good bar, and I pointed them the only place I knew about. That done, lap completed, sound check still ongoing, I decided to circle a few blocks to keep from standing still and getting antsy. I headed down toward the water, passed the quiet Reef, all the closed stores and market stalls, and the dock customs building. Kept going, into a part of town I was unfamiliar with. It was poorly lit, and being as I was unfamiliar with PG at large, I was soon pondering whether I ought to turn around and give up on finding a cross street. Kept at it, and was rewarded a few minutes later with a street to turn onto. I took it, only to find out 100 yards later that my road was a dead end, and the only way to continue was a tiny, 2 foot wide alley between two buildings. Pretty sketchy, but I could see the streetlight on the other side, and the street I knew I had to be on, so I elected to take my chances.

Getting to my end of the alley, I was about to enter when a shadowy figure entered the other side. He (from the voice I heard cursing softy) was dragging something bulky with him, walking somewhat hunched, and took up the whole alley. I had no choice but to sit and wait for this strange man to approach. As he got about 20 feet away, I called out to him;

“Hey man, what’s that you’re dragging there?”
“Me? Oh, this is my bike.”
“Oh, because I thought it was a body, or something terrifying.”

We both laughed and I waited on my side for him to approach. As he emerged from the dark alley, I could see he was somewhat shorter then myself, and walking a bike that would be more suited for a 12-13 year old. I stepped back to let him get the bike out of the rut it was in, and he stood straight up for the first time and we gave it the old terrorist fist bump greeting.

“Hey, how’s it going? I’m K.”
“Bryant. Just think Kobe and you won’t forget it. All my friends call me Gremar.”

We were walking apart at this point, and I thought that was the end of meeting Bryant, but just then he spun around and asked me if I wanted to buy any ganja. The question took me kinda by surprise, so instead of brushing him off like the other dozen people who have tried to sell me things, I told him that depended entirely on what he was selling. He laid the bike down, came back over, and popped a little bag out of his shoe. And that, ladies and gents, is when I laid eyes on the best bud I’d seen in Belize.

“$5” He says.
“American?” Everyone else here as been trying to rip me off, and you’re practically giving this away?
“Nah man, this isn’t worth that, just 5 Belize.”
“Alright, I’m game, but I’ll have to break a larger bill.” This is a steal, so what’s the catch?
“No problem man, lets head over to the park, watch the band, drink a beer.”
“Suits me, lead on.” And now we’re not lost.

At the park I bought a couple stouts while Bryant ran off to return the bike to it’s owner. He’d been going to Rosewood, he told me when he got back, trying to record a few songs for his band, the Crystal Skulls. He had this song, the big one, that he wanted to record and try to get on the radio – a proud song of his Maya people, part in English, part in Maya, about their lives, the hardships they faced, and how their triumph over all of it was preordained. “Hell of a task for one song,” I observed, and he nodded grimly. “It needs work.” The band on stage was still messing with instruments, speakers, and the crowd was antsy. Finally they struck up a few songs, and for all their billing as a great Guatemalan reggae/punta band, I wasn’t nearly as blown away by these guys as I had been by the ones I’d seen over the past few days. We only stayed a half dozen songs before deciding that paying extra money to drink lukewarm beer and watch a lame band wasn’t the best way we could spend our night. We headed over, for a change of pace, to the Reef.

It was considerably livelier then it had been earlier, with tourists and locals filling the main bar area, the lights down low, and music playing. We bought another round, and went out to sit on the balcony. Bryant rolled a fondu joint, and we sat and smoked as he filled me in on his rich family history in the area. Apparently he personally had moved into the traditional family homestead after attending university, coming back to a place where his family could trace their roots back hundreds of years. Over 500 members of his extended family lived out in the community of San Antonio, most of them had for their entire lives. Bryant, having gone out and gotten educated, spent a lot of time coming into PG for business and pleasure, and slinging ganja was a way to pay the bills. I was really impressed by how smart he was, on top of current events, making better pop culture references then myself. He said he didn’t have electricity in his house, but he managed to keep up on the news. In addition, he was a philosophical sort, a revolutionary heart, with a dreamer’s mind. We got along just fine.

After, I don’t know, a hour, some guys came up wanting to buy and I casually walked off a couple feet – it’s for my own good as well as theirs that I don’t know what others do. Ended up in a great conversation with a Creole guy, who I was in just enough of an altered mindset to understand. He spoke no English, I no Creole, but we somehow managed to talk about how he had always dreamed of going to the United States, had gone north, crossed the border, only to be caught in Texas and sent back. He spent time in jail in Mexico because he couldn’t bribe the police, and had just finally gotten back to Belize. “What are you doing next?” I asked. “I’m going to work, get more money, and do it again,” he said. “Well then, I hope you make it in ok,” and I meant it. We parted ways when his friend finished up business, and I told him I’d catch him on the flip side. Dedicated guy – we could use more like him stateside.

Then Bryant and I made our way into the main bar area, where we reunited with the regulars, and it turned out Bryant and I knew all the same people. We took a table off to the side, sat around still deep in conversation, and blew another 2 hours or so like that. I don’t know how, but the conversation at one point came around to his home, and he was describing the beauty and wonder of the Belizean mountain country, and I told him I wished I could see it.

“Oh, you can,” he said emphatically, “Just come with me tomorrow morning, on the bus.”
“When?”
“6 at the central park, we’ll meet there and ride together.”
“Yeesh, that’s early man, but I’ll try.” Fuck that, a little voice said – how often will you get this opportunity again? You’ll be on that bus.

After a few more insistences that I would be coming, that we would see each other the next morning, I dragged myself off to the hostel. Oh yeah, and said some half-assed goodbyes to everyone I met and cared about. It already felt late, even without a watch, and sure enough it was after 10:30 when I got back to Nature’s Way. Everyone was asleep except a couple of card players, and so we played Rummy until midnight because I like to make my life a challenge. I got beaten severely, and they took teams kicking me in the ribs and stealing my lunch money. I think the final score was both of them in the 500-550 range, and I had 250 or so. Card Sharks. I went to bed, told myself there was no way in hell I was getting up at 5am.

Day 5: 25 May, 2009
Amazingly, I was awake and alert at 5:20am. This gave me time to shower, change, and throw all my non-wet clothes in the pack, which I hid in a back corner. Half the laundry was still pretty damp, so I left them hanging and prayed I wouldn’t come back to find everything stolen. After that, made the sprint to the bus station with the bare minimum – my last $13 Belize, Camera, knife, and iPhone stashed in case of emergency. Did bring the hat though, and wore long sleeves to keep from doubling down on yesterday’s sunburn. Oh, and I wore practical shoes instead of my paper-thin, 7 year old sandals. Made it to the clock tower and saw nobody there. I wasn’t sure what time it was, but there wasn’t even anyone to ask. Right about the time I was kicking myself around for missing out on such an amazing opportunity, Gremar came out of nowhere and surprised me. Another fist bump for Hamas, and he told me I was on the wrong side of the park – everyone waited in the shade behind the stage. That made sense – who else besides dumb gringos would wait for the bus in the sun? We sat and waited, I met a couple other guys who lived near Bryant, and we talked as the bus schedule was casually tossed out the window.

Interesting thing here – the Maya guys speak an Mayan dialect pronounced Ketchee, but I don’t know the spelling, as well as Creole – hardly anyone aside from Bryant spoke English. But for those who haven’t heard it, Creole is like very accented English with the structure different and a lot of Spanish and especially French words. It’s totally possible to understand as an English-speaker if you concentrate, and likewise – they can get me, I can get them, and it all works out. Still, very wild to be sitting with 4 guys and not have a common language to speak. Reminded me a lot of hanging out here in Pespire with J and M and their friends from abroad – everyone just communicates as best they can, and you all make it work. We did just that until another bus came, not ours, but going in the same direction, and we took that.

Bryant remembered at this point that it was Commonwealth day, and most bus lines wouldn’t be running. “Man,” he told me, “I was supposed to be back yesterday, but I stayed because all the people and girls were in PG. Now we might not be able to get back, what a fuckup!” and laughed. I joined him, because from my precarious position, at the mercy of him and Belize’s buses, I was loving every second of it. When Bryant paid for the two of us, I just barely saw him short the bus ayudante a buck, it was so smooth. He gave the guy a 2 dollar bill and 2 dollar coins, but as he passed the money over, only one of the dollar coins went with it. The ayudante kept going, but 4-5 seats later came back and said he needed the other dollar, and Bryant gave it up. He looked at me and shrugged, “When every dollar counts, you gotta try.”

The bus dropped us off at a crossroads, and so Bryant, one of his friends, and I started walking, hoping to catch a ride from a passing car. Another woman was there too, but she took off well ahead of us, probably wary of 3 ugly mugs like us hurting her chance of getting a ride. First car to pass us didn’t stop, second was full of riders, but the third vehicle to pass was the bus, the one we should have been on in the first place. We flagged her down, hopped on, and worked our way to the back to stand amid baggage, produce, and spare bus tires, hanging onto the edges of windows and the rear emergency door to stay upright. I was the only white face on the bus aside from the woman who had been walking ahead of us. The riders spoke Maya, but I noticed that the ones near me would stop and switch into Creole if they thought I was watching. Politeness? That or evidence of a cultural shyness that seems to have ingrained itself in these people. Bryant and I helped unload luggage at the stops, until eventually we had space to stretch out a bit. When we hopped out of the bus on the side of a forested gravel road out in the mountains, the only people left in the bus were those headed to Guatemala. I shook out the sore spots from riding, smiled at Bryant, and asked him where his town was.

Looking left and right from where we’d been dropped off, I saw nothing but road and forest, the trees 60, 80, 100 feet over our heads, and a smaller turnoff that was basically two muddy truck ruts in a cleared-out path. “We walk from here man,” He told me. “Water!” I thought to myself, as I wondered what I would regret not bringing. We set out on foot, and the path, though winding and uphill, was quite reasonable. We passed a few thatched houses, Bryant pointed out the town proper to me in the distance, and of course he knew everyone. It turns out that the whole town is basically 4 big families, whose histories have been intertwined ever since they all set up here living and working together. Pretty awesome to have that kind of history – I barely even know 1 of my great-grandparents.

We eventually made it about a ½ mile later to a junction of 3 houses. This was it, it told me, his family’s plot, and I don’t know why, but my gut kinda clinched up right here. I think I was just scared at the prospect of having to meet the parents of the guy I met when he offered to sell me weed the night before. Not the most awkward greeting, but still pretty weird, since there’s the language barrier to contend with too. Still, we strode onward and came to a small group of thatched and wood buildings, a few close together with a central courtyard, animal pens to one side, crops and vegetables growing to another. Everywhere, between houses, in front of doors, in seemingly random locations sprang young trees. The impression was one of a village swallowed by forest. I asked Bryant why the trees were everywhere, and he said that his people believed that “Where Jah wants the tree to grow, that’s where it grows.” Such a simple statement, but what a powerful view.

After splashing water on our faces and washing up a bit at the pump, we went into his grandmother’s house to greet her, and to see if we could get something to eat. Gran was mid 60’s, still running her small 1-room house by herself, and looked petite, grey, but happy. She smiled at me when I came in, and laughed at my attempts to pronounce “Good morning,” and “It’s a pleasure to meet you” in Maya. Hell if I know how to spell, or even pronounce what I said – I just hope the laugh wasn’t one of “oh my, how the funny the gringo is when he tells us doing something obscene.” I mean, that’s the power you have over people who don’t speak your language – if you ask “How do I say ‘good morning?’” and they tell you to say “I fuck pigs for fun and pleasure,” how the hell are you going to know the difference?

Really though, meeting his gran went great, along with one of her daughters and a 6mo infant, Bryant’s newest nephew. We were given bowls of the same soup I had eaten at the cultural day before, except cold. Still good, though you really have to work to eat it. The tortillas were great though, cornmeal freshly cooked on flat metal pans with a little butter. After breakfast, I played with the puppies, Bella and Queen (note, I don’t intend to remember the dog’s names perfectly and not people’s – it just happens!) and the pups were great. Loved, obviously, because they nuzzled and licked and didn’t flinch when you leaned toward them. Queen was my favorite, cause apparently I’m practical, and like my power and money over beauty. Plus, she jumped into my lap. Then it came time to tear myself away from relatives and dogs, because Bryant wanted to show me the house he had built by hand with 8 other guys in a few months.

It is a fantastic house. Wood literally sewn together with fiberous vines from the trees, on a sturdy concrete slab. In the front there’s a covered porch, where there was corn drying, some logs and stumps to sit on, and a waist-high wall around. It also serves as the chicken’s nesting grounds, so there were a few mother hens sitting on their eggs that squawked at us. Heading inside through the sturdy front door, the house was one large room and one small one. In the large room, Bryant had shelves, a work table, a bench, and line strung across the ceiling. Everything was covered in food, useful items salvaged, parts, projects. It reminded me very strikingly of my father’s work spaces at home, and sure enough Bryant knew where everything was, to a point. The small room was a bedroom, but Bryant said it had been his mother’s and while he didn’t go any further then that, he didn’t have to. Bryant sleeps in the main room in his hammock, swung beneath the 20 foot rafters and tied up overhead during the day. The bedroom was more storage, his wardrobe, prized possessions. He showed me some of the things he was working on, but said he really wanted a radio so he could get news broadcasts, and I made a mental note, and here a written promise, to get him one when I come back to visit. All in all it was a great place – breezy and cool in the morning sun, solidly built, and amazingly without nails or any modern equipment – just 8 guys and whatever they needed out of the forests, though Bryant pointed out a couple times that he had cheated on the concrete foundation. We went out the back door to complete the tour.

“See those stones?” He’s pointing at the 2-foot high wall/bench made out of closely stacked stones right next to my leg.
“Yeah, I think so.”
“They’re from my ancestors, we dug them up under the house. There’s a big one down there still, that’s where the Jade is.”
‘The Jade?”
“You’ve seen the Jade, haven’t you? At the ruins yesterday, they have Jade in the museum, things they found at Lubaantun.”
“Oh yeah, I’ve seen those. The little carvings, right?”
“Yeah, those are Jade. They’re sacred to my people. Jade has power man, it drives people mad. Some people, they spend their whole lives searching for Jade, and it ruins them. That’s why we left the Jade buried, left it under the house. That way its power can live on.”

We sat there on the stones of a collapsed civilization, and talked about its treasures of gold, jewels, and precious gems. Bryant suddenly grinned at me, “you know what else is a Maya treasure? Ganja. We showed it to the whole world.” With that he ran inside and came out with a good sized bag and little Zig-zag rolling papers. I laughed at that – little touches of America popping up the Belizean rainforest. He proceeded to roll a joint, and I stared out in absolute wonder at the view. The mountains fell away to others beyond, and I could see a wide forested valley, punctuated by tiny homesteads like the one I was at. This, I reflected, was one hell of a place to live. As we sat there and passed back and forth, Bryant told me about all the places we would visit that day. We were going to walk to his uncle’s house up the road, but take the back road, “The way only Maya know.” Then we’d see the waterfalls, the purifying pool, and the guest house I could stay at if I ever came to visit. He had it all planned out, and we’d back in time for me to take the 1:30 bus, the 4:00 boat, and perhaps even make it San Pedro to take an overnight to Trujillo. Seemed like a solid plan to me, and so we finished off the joint, and I reflected on how stupid high I was at… 8 in the morning? Probably around there, maybe 8:30.

Bryant wanted this shot. I dig it. Bryant wanted this shot. I dig it.

Back in Bryant’s house, I tell him I’m going to have to find some water before we go hiking, cause I’m a weakling gringo, and he tells me I can get a cup out of the pump. I try to tell him that my stomach is going to purge itself out both ends if I do that, and he laughs. “Come on then, you have to meet my uncles before we leave. Hope you like corn wine.” With that he’s out the front door, so I follow, asking the relevant “what’s that about corn wine?” “You’ll see man.” Up the hill, back to Gran’s house, except now there’s 2 guys sitting outside on a chair and stump respectively. They greet in enthusiastic Criole, one of them toasting me with a quart bottle of what looks like cooking oil. This guy, Marco I think – it was an M-name – had a great mustache, a dirty shirt from a university I’d never heard of in Maryland, and cut-off cargo shorts. Barena, the other guy whose name I’ve spelled as I think it sounds but was unable to pronounce to his liking in 40some tries, was cleaner in his wife beater and tired workpants. He had shitkicker boots too. He handed me a tin mug and smiled yellow and broad. “You like corn wine?” To my “I’ve never had it” he responded with a roar and by snatching the bottle from his comrade. Filling my mug, he capped the bottle and the three of them looked expectantly at me. Gran appeared out of nowhere in the doorway, also watching and smiling.

“What the hell,” I thought, “It can’t be any worse then guaro, or some of the things I drank on “mix everything on top of the fridge” day in college. Tilt it back, and get ready, this stuff is actually pretty good. It’s like alcoholic corn syrup, but not as sweet as you’re imagining. It’s definitely a big boy’s drink – I’d guess upwards of 15-16% – but it’s quite enjoyable to drink. Taste isn’t bad, though it lingers and makes you want to brush your teeth. I finished a couple mouthfuls and offered it back, only to find that Barena had found himself another glass, and this one was now mine. That’s when Marco lit a huge joint, and things started getting a little unglued. The mental gymnastics I was trying to do to keep up with the world around me were getting faster, more intricate.

Quite frankly, this was a world I was not prepared for. The last time I sat around at 9am smoking my second joint of the day and drinking mugs of wine was right about the time I hit rock bottom in college, failed every class, and had to apply for readmission. To do it again with people 15-20 years my senior and grandma was what was throwing me, that and the fact that this weed seemed like it had been pulled off a plant yesterday. That thought tripped something in my head that sent off a message; “hello K, glad you’re on top of it today. What else do you think people living way out in the fringes of society are going to do? Of course they grow this stuff!” and sure enough, looking as far as 10 feet away I saw 2 little plants coming up among the tomatos, vegetables, and flowers. I pointed em out and laughed, and Barena, Marco, and Bryant joined me. “Accidents man,” said Bryant, “they threw the seeds in there, and they grew up. It’s what Jah wants.” I asked if I could have a leaf off one of the plants, and they happily obliged me. It’s sitting pressed between the pages for Puerto Cortes in my Honduras guidebook drying right now. The morning wore on, I got good and loose, and Bryant gave me a big glass of water out of the pump. I stared at it – I was thirsty, I was about to go walking an unknown distance, and it was easily mid-90s out and humid. I really needed to drink this water. “Fuck it, we’ll pay the wages of sin tomorrow,” said I, and down the hatch it went.

Turns out, they have a fantastic water system in San Antonio. It helps that they’re way up at the top of the watershed, but really, top notch stuff. A hint of chlorine to keep me from worrying too badly, but great taste and clarity. I had 2 glasses, thanked the family once more for their hospitality, breakfast, and getting me cross-faded before the sun was even properly pegged up in the sky. Bryant and I set off out the back of the property, on a small narrow path that opened up into a gorgeous brightly lit footpath through what I have told many people since was the most beautiful place I had ever been. There’s pictures, but they just can’t do it justice – the lighting, the overgrowth, the feeling of being a part of the living, breathing earth was just incredible, made better by the fact that I had a local guide who knew all the best parts. He kept leading us off the path one way or another, on invisible trails I couldn’t see even while on them. Waterfalls, pools, babbling brooks and streams, they all lay off to the side of this little wandering path, and nobody would ever know they where there unless someone bothered to show you. It was just this mindblowing (and not just because I was messed up) journey through a natural world I’d never even seen before.

Yeah, it's kinda like this. Yeah, it’s kinda like this.

At one point I needed water, being as it was scorching whenever we weren’t under tree cover, and Bryant would find us little side trails to secret pools of fresh, safe water. I’ll pay tomorrow, I kept thinking but the water was fresh and clear, and tasted amazing. Everything we saw was seemingly surpassed by the next. Giant overgrown forests gave way to fields of young banana and corn cut into the mountainside, gave way to lush tropical forest around the streams. Everywhere water flowed, dripped, things grew, animals screeched and screamed. It was magical, and if you can’t tell, I’m really, severely struggling to communicate just how incredible this place is. “I’ve found my El Dorado,” I wrote the next time I found a pen. It was that moving to me. I ran out of picture space in an hour, deleted a lot of old and bad photos, and Bryant laughed at me – “just wait,” he repeated, “the next part is better.” – and it always was. I would have cried at the beauty of it, had not my body been retaining every microliter of precious moisture.

My favorite parts of the walk were twin pools, one above and one below the path, both of which you could drink from, and the lower of which you could swim in. Here’s how Bryant put it: “So you know man, you can come back here anytime, bring a girl, come on down here, and you know, do what you gotta do. Nobody around, you can do whateeeever you want.” and then gave him signature grin. “Guest house too man, you can get a lot of alone time out here, know what I’m saying?” I did, and I saw the genius of it – “Hey look, a gorgeous swimming hole in the middle of the rainforest, lets get naked and swim” would have worked here with pretty much anyone I have an interest in getting naked with.

“What do you do in the US when you like a girl and want to have sex with her?” he asked as we were drinking out of the upper pool.
“Well man, usually you go out on a few dates, see how you like each other, and then one night get drunk and fuck, and take it from there.” I answered, balanced precariously over the stream to drink from the deep clear pool in the center.
“Here man, we don’t do any of that shit. If you like each other, you fuck. My gran, she has 5 kids from 5 guys. It’s just a different way to live.” Yeah, no shit. Way to go granny though.

We went for miles, I’m not sure how many, but the sun was nearly overhead when we made it to the big swimming pool, which was apparently our goal. I sat down in the shade of a thatched canopy and drank some water out of an offered canteen. Snapped a few pictures of the waterfalls, wish I’d been more careful about my photo-taking, but I’m just too impatient about it, taking on instinct. This place deserved more care. We stripped down to boxers and went swimming beneath the falls, where Bryant told me about a vast underwater cave network that existed below. According to legend, the ancient Maya knew where air pockets were, and a way to escape out the other side when the Spanish were chasing them. However, a long time ago part of the system collapsed and destroyed most of the air pockets, and so now people come and scuba dive beneath the falls occasionally, but the caves are a lot more dangerous then they were. I was content to mess around, get soaked and cold in the fresh water, and generally not feel like I was dying of dehydration. It was, in the spirit of this entire escapade, a glorious adventure.

Oh look, a gorgeous waterfall. Oh look, a gorgeous waterfall.

Out of the pool again, we climbed up the rocks to sit dripping in the shade, the slight breeze leaving me gloriously cool and level-headed. In fact, I’d pretty much sweat out the morning’s mindfuck, so it shouldn’t have been a surprise when Bryant’s uncle and the workers who were building a nearby thatched building came over with a couple big tobacco-leaf blunts, and 2 quarts of corn wine. Surprise! Mid-day smoke session, and I can see the logic in it – it’s downright unpleasant working in the hot sun all day, but high and a little wine drunk, I could get into it. And that’s how I got stupid again. Finally, when everything was done, smoked, drunk, the workers went back to it and asked me to take a few pictures of them, which I happily obliged. Pretty awe-inspiring to see construction done with all-natural materials, by hand, with only machetes and basic hand tools. These guys were really good at it too, working as a team without really needing to talk. Reminded me of watching our old Fedex crew in action – nobody needed to talk because we all knew how the others acted and reacted. In the 45 minutes or an hour and a half that I was there, they went from one post in the ground to the 4 corners laid, with connecting beams between and the start of the roofing lattice. Eventually Bryant and I had to get back so I wouldn’t miss my bus, so we said goodbyes, I got invited back by 4 more people, and we set out for home.

This time we took the main road, so I was very surprised when 20 minutes later we were in the town Bryant had pointed out from his hill. I’d thought that we had walked many miles, and I told Bryant this. He grinned and asked me why I thought only the Maya took the path we’d been on. “Think about it man, why else would anyone but Maya want to take the long way to get where they wanted to go?” – yet another great look into the deep love of nature inherent in these people. We took pictures in front of the “W” mountains, where 3 peaks line up to form the letter from the right angle, which happens to be right behind and to the right of the church. After getting the lightning tour of San Antonio proper, we took off for home. I had another glass of water, said goodbye to the whole family, and we set off to the bus station.

Adventure over, right? Fuck no. The bus didn’t come, so after 45 minutes waiting we went to go visit one of Bryant’s grandfathers, who was ill. He was lying outside his house on a small mattress when we got there, and told me he was watching the world go by before he died. What do you even say to that? Bryant knew what to do, and rolled a joint for grandpa. We sat and smoked and waited another half hour for the bus, but gave up on it. There was another at 4:30, so I could probably get home, but it looked like PG had roped me in another day. Said goodbye to grandpa, took a covert photo of him and his “My Love in God” tattoo, and we set out to Bryant’s again.

Grandpa Grandpa

It was there that the day of adventure, little food, and drinking and smoking caught up with me. Bryant played guitar while his uncles and I watched, and I tried to keep from dozing. By 3 or so I was perked back up, and Bryant and I were exchanging contact info, and talking about the next time I would come to visit, and who I would bring. (by the way, open invite, just get yourself down to Belize and give me enough time to get over there too.) We exchanged phones, emails, I gave him my parent’s home address and phone to make damn sure we didn’t lose touch. Then the uncles started yelling outside, and it turned out it was corn wine o’clock and so we did that. I chased a pig around in circles in the yard, played with the puppies again, and we all just laughed and messed around. It was a hell of an day, all considered, and while I’m pretty sure lung cancer and liver disease would be in an all-out sprint to kill me off if I did it daily, I will never regret this day, these friends, or this leap into the unknown.

Around 4, we set out to the bus station, a collection of chipped concrete benches with a drab concrete floor, pillars, and overhang. To me, after a day in some sort of primitivist’s wet dream, it was really crushing to be leaving this paradise for the dirty, poor, dangerous world beyond, and the pain in my ass from the bare concrete was as much a wakeup as anything that I was leaving Wonderland, headed East of Eden to my reality. Or I would, anyway, if the buses ever came. 4:30 came and went, nothing showed. Bryant and I shrugged and kept waiting. 5, 5:30, and I was about thinking I’d have to hitch a ride or stay the night when my very last chance bus, the 6pm from Guatemala, rolled into town. It could take me as far as the crossroads I’d been at earlier, and then I’d have to hitch. I gave Bryant a bear hug, we took a last photo together, and I parted ways with me new friend. I hope I’ll see him again – been unable to get hold of him on the phone number I have, and aside from just showing up at his house, that’s the only contact info I have on the man. We shall see – I’m not above just showing up with a few days’ things and seeing if he’ll put me up, or even still exists. People like this worry me, because I’m never sure if they weren’t just a mirage, an amazing adventure that pops out into the world once ever hundred years or so, then vanishes again. At least I got pictures.

And here's Bryant - Love this guy. And here’s Bryant – Love this guy.

There’s not much else to the story – the bus got me where I needed to be, and I paid a man $3 of my last $4 Belize to ride in the back of his pickup to PG. He wasn’t happy with it, I might have stiffed him, but since everyone who got out 3 blocks before gave him $2, I think he was just expecting me to be a dumb gringo with more money then sense. Sorry mate, I’m the poor, somewhat savvy sort – bad luck on your part. I was in PG around 7:15, 7:30, and the first thing I did was run over to the hostel to make sure nobody had robbed me blind, or Diane hadn’t gotten pissed off at me for leaving my things scattered around. Showed up breathless, and she didn’t even realize I’d planned to leave. I got to keep my same bed and area, and nobody had been there all day. I packed things up, grimaced at the awful smell of my clothes and self, showered, still stank, and showered again with pretty much all of my shampoo and soap. I was a filthy mess, more then usual, and so it was perhaps 8:30 when I was ready to do anything, or would have been if I had more then $1 Belize to my name. Dinner was out: I was looking at my money long term, and PG to Trujillo, followed by Trujillo to Pespire, and back Pespire to Trujillo if all worked out, would completely wipe me out. Instead, I went downstairs, found Diane watching TV and the missionaries gone, and set out to say proper goodbyes to my friends at the Reef.

Showed up, and it was like I hadn’t left at all – same regulars, same expats, same great scene. I came across the crew as they were smoking a blunt and just sat off to the side telling my story – I really didn’t need it at this point. I couldn’t even buy a beer, and so I was getting ready to leave when Emily (the only Emily I’m sure of, and the one I’m naming everyone else after) offered to buy me drinks. I took her up on it, and hung out and sipped beers while everyone talked and bonded. I felt bad about not paying anything, so after 2 I slipped the rest of what I’d gotten from Bryant into Emily’s pocket while she wasn’t paying attention – least I could do. Said warm farewells to everyone I knew and a few people I didn’t, and promised to be back one day. I expect nothing to have changed, and that’s exactly what I’m going for.

Headed back to the hostel, planning to sleep, and who do I run into but the one girl who I really connected with out of the whole missionary group. She’s sitting on the front porch, doing I don’t know what, but obviously waiting for someone. She lights up as I come in, looking I imagine like a haggard, sick fool. Sit down next to her, and tell her the whole crazy adventure, and she tells me I look like I’ve been drinking and smoking all day. I laugh, we talk a while yet, and I tell her she’s lucky in that she gets to see me when I’m at my best and worst, and not at the maddening numb stages when I’m in between flights of madness. She tells me I’m scary, one of those unsafe boys who will just end up hurting himself and everyone around. “It’s not the first time I’ve heard that; probably won’t be the last. Sorry to disappoint.” I say, lounging against the wooden frame of an old bed. “I’m still here talking to you, aren’t I?” she asks. Yeah, she was. I didn’t know how to deal with that at this point, so I just kept her talking as I fought off the pressure of the day’s activity putting me to sleep.

Still, I could have salvaged it, kissed her at least, and I almost did, if I could have kept my damn mouth shut. I was moving closer to her, she was talking about herself and what she wanted out of life, and I saw the Moment, the point where I should have leaned in and kissed her and it would have worked out just right, and I did exactly what you’re not supposed to – I thought about it. I marveled at the moment, how clear and bright and obvious it was, and by the time I got my head out of my ass, the goddess of fortune had flown on, and I hadn’t even tried to grab her coattails. I made some bad comments, said some things you just shouldn’t say, misjudged her mood and made an off-color joke about relatives who turned out to be dead. That was about the point where we parted ways, her to continue her Belize adventure, me to kick myself for being absolutely inept around pretty girls who like me. Drank some more water and passed out cold for one of the most needed night’s sleep I’ve ever had.

This is my favorite picture of the trip. This is my favorite picture of the trip.

Day 6: 26 May, 2009
Having failed spectacularly in my efforts to leave Belize the day before, I was hell-bound to get out early on Tuesday. By 7:30 I was up, showered, shaved, and headed to the Snack Shack to actually eat there. Turns out 4th day is a charm, and I had a fantastic breakfast burrito that weighed a good pound of egg, ham, peppers, cheese, mushrooms, and everything nice. I was really enjoying myself, eating for the first time since Bryant’s, when Andy entered my life and fucked up my Christmas.

Here’s Andy – 50’s, balding, looks like he’s beaten himself up against a wall of hard drugs, boozing, and bad decisions. Basically, he was me if I’m not careful about moderating myself, and if I was really astoundingly bad at making decisions. He sat at my table when there was only 1 other person in the whole joint, and within a minute was in tears about some land-grab deal that had sounded too good to be true, and was. He’d lost like $4,000 Belize, and was going to have to sell his car… It was a shitshow. I just wanted to eat my burrito, not have adventures for one morning, and here he came to fuck up my program. I figured the best way to deal with Andy would be to ask him to tell me the whole story, and then just do what I wanted while he worked his way through whatever he needed to do. So I did, and he did, and constant teary outbursts and self-recrimination aside, Andy wasn’t the worst company I could have had. He’s a great example for a “Don’t do meth” campaign though. Still… I wasn’t up for it that morning, and while I feel bad for not even trying to make an emotional connection with someone who was having an awful time, it was his own fault and he won’t get better before he realizes that. Paid my bill, said goodbye to Andy, and ran off to the hostel for my bag and the dock for my boat.

Changed 1000 Lempira at the dock for all of $91 Belize, and that paid for breakfast, boat, bed, border, and left me with just enough to buy a few water bottles to fill my Kanteen, and a red pen off a confused woman in a US Fashion Imports store for my second to last dollar. The one I kept was the one I found, a greasy, worn-down one that had been wedged into the cracks in my under-construction floor. Popped it out with my knife, and it’s been sticking with me. Really cool looking coin too, I’m a fan of Belize’s money.

This all left me sitting on the dock outside, waiting for the boat crew to return so we could go to Guatemala. I wasn’t paying a lot of attention to anyone, but instead cramming as much information about the PG to Trujillo transit system as possible. Getting the right names in is key to being helped on the buses, and it also helps you appear to be less of a tourist and more of traveler. Trust me, there is a difference. As such I didn’t even notice Tom and Liz until we were loaded into the boat and helping the crew put our luggage together in the bow. We all ended up in the front seat, them for their reasons, me to catch the breeze on the way out. I don’t know when I’ll be in a small boat again, and I miss them. I struck up a conversation with Liz because, well, pretty girl, me, hour boat ride. You do the math.

“So which white people part of the world are you from?”
“What?”
“Where are you from?”
“Oh… England.”
“Not too bad. You guys have it better then Americans at least.”
“Yeah, I guess. Where are you from?”
“California. What do you have against America?”

She and Tom were here as part of a many-month tour of the world, 6 months into their 9. They were planning to cross Honduras today, and take an overnight bus to Nicaragua. Blond, prettier then most girls I get to talk to, wearing a tiny black dress and big sun glasses was Liz, and Tom was the also blond, tall guy that looked like he would run off on 9 month tours of the world with girls that looked like Liz. They were good people, and we swapped stories for a while before discussing travel plans. They really didn’t know where they would have to go past this boat, except that they needed to head to San Pedro. Complicating matters, neither of them spoke Spanish, and so they were just going to hunt and peck their across Honduras searching for people who spoke English! I love it – cuts way closer to the dangerous edge of the world then what I’m doing.. I offered to help them along as far as SPS, because I was headed there as well, and it had kinda been a bitch getting here. However, when we got to Puerto Barrios, Guatemala, all we had to do was run through the entrance procedure, and before we were finished a man was asking us if we wanted to take a directo straight to San Pedro. I jumped on that, and for 175 Quetzales ($22ish) we were loaded into a bus to the border, where we would deboard, do exit and entrance customs, and then board a larger bus to San Pedro. Compared to my chicken bus road trip, this promised to be a whole lot easier to deal with, and with a 12 hour minimum travel day ahead of me, easy and. We loaded into the minibus and set out, got passport stamps, and were on our way. Fittingly, this is when I first sensed that I had a problem.

Farewell PG. Farewell PG.

Remember “the Wages of Sin” I mentioned having to pay during my wild adventures of the night before? Well, the whole morning I’d been in a wild hurry and blissing out over memories of Monday’s adventures, and so it wasn’t until we got in the broiling van, belted in, and I didn’t have to be anything for anybody, I realized that I was run down. Tired, feeling weak and sleep deprived. I tried to sleep, couldn’t get comfortable in a van where I wasn’t willing to put my head on much. Within twenty minutes we were at the border – I shook it out, drank some water, took a bonine and my antimalarial, and got in line to pay for the priviledge of walking from one side of an imaginary line to the other. Amazing how much governing has to do with taking money. We ran into trouble when Tom and Liz went to pay for their tickets, because they didn’t have enough money on them, and there were no banks except all the way back in Puerto Barrios. I paid the gap in their bill, and their entrance fee as well. Gambling on good people. We got on the bus, took the nicest seat I’d ever seen on a bus, which really isn’t saying much, but I was content to get into it, lie back, and try to sleep.

Not happening. I’m too wired to sleep, too hot, bothered, feeling bursts or nausea and long stretches of general malaise. I was sick, I knew why, and I started to make alternative plans in case this got debilitating. I could hit Pespire if I was really bad, leave the Trujillo trip for later, the best hospitals are in big cities, and in the more urgent sense, the bathroom at the back of the bus was 6 rows behind me on the right. Still, I wasn’t seriously worried. I figured I had a few hours before things got bad, and in the meanwhile, it gave me some more time to practice meditating pain away. It worked well enough to lull me to sleep, fitfully, for the majority of the journey. Maybe I could make it to Trujillo before succumbing.

Not happening. One of my rudest awakenings ever occurred about 20 minutes outside of San Pedro. I snapped away already vomiting, and proceded to throw up directly into my hat, on my sunglasses, notebook, water bottle, legs, the seat in front of me, the floor. One of the more copious puke sessions I’ve had, courtesy of that gigantic delicious breakfast burrito. The man next to me, on whom I did not vomit, gave me a look I will remember to the day I die, a look at once half-humor, half-utter repulsion, a smirk’s face with a dropped jaw. The woman across from him gave me a small roll of toilet paper. I apologized to the people around me, grabbed my things, and walked calmly to the front of the bus, dripping my own vomit. A proud moment in any young man’s life. The worst part? As I was thinking to myself, “this is an auspicious beginning to something terrible.”

When we finally got to San Pedro, I was the second person off the bus after the ayudante, grabbed my bag with my hand that wasn’t holding a hat dripping vomit and a pair of sunglasses and notebook smeared with it. Think mucousy stuff too, bits of egg and ham in it. God, I was a shitshow. Tom and Liz ran into me as I was headed into the terminal to find a bathroom, and we agreed to meet back up right inside this doorway after Tom found a bank and I a sink. I wagered 520L that they wouldn’t ditch out on me, and as I was heading inside Liz told me, “You know, there was a bathroom in the back of that bus.” Best part was having to walk the entire gigantic crowded San Pedro bus terminal to reach the bathroom in the middle of the food court. No, scratch that, the best part was getting charged $3 by a surly young lady to use the bathroom to clean the very three-dimensional, breakfast-burrito-smelling vomit off myself in a bus station bathroom, and have to hurry about it too, because I’d lost sight of the people who owed me roughly 1/3 of my total money in the world. There I was, shirtless, scrubbing my pants in the sink with pink hand soap, puked on hat and sunglasses running under water in a second. My bag thrown open in the corner, lovingly cleaned notebook sitting on top. I changed shirts, scrubbed the hell out of my pants, washed face, arms, hands, was very impressed I had not vomited on my shoes, deodorized things as best I could, and walked out of there in 9 minutes, bought a 7up and another water bottle, and gargled first the water, then the 7up and spit in a trash can.

When I got back to where I’d split up with Tom and Liz, I was relieved to see Liz sitting on her bag, confused expression on her face, trying to talk to 3 women gathered around her, one of whom was a security officer. She’d been doing well for herself, I’d gathered. I walked up, introduced myself, said I was traveling with Liz and her boyfriend, and they needed to take a directo to Nicaragua. That placated everyone, the station whose door Liz was sitting 3 feet from had just such a bus, but Tom wasn’t back from the atm yet, and the ayudantes for my bus were practically dragging me to buy a ticket. We were cutting things close – I gave 100L to an ayudante to buy me a ticket, and just then Tom showed up and gave me 600L instead of the 520 they owed. I tried to refuse it, but when the money is in the form of a 500 and a 100, there’s not exactly a way to make 520. I thanked them both, asked Liz to watch my bag, and pushed Tom into the El Rey ticket office. There I explained the situation in rapid-fire Spanish, asked for 2 tickets on the Nicaragua bus, and found a girl who spoke English to take over. Ran outside, grabbed my bag, offered my hand to Liz, saying “I didn’t puke on it,” and ran off to the bus. Gambled on good people, and it turned out right in the end. I hope they make it down safely into the Spanish-speaking world.

As for me, I wasn’t doing too hot. Feeling feverish, fighting the urge to vomit again, and with nothing to help me except some water and 7up. I’d been hustling again at the terminal and pushed all the bad feelings back into the corners of my mind, but as soon as I was sitting down and didn’t have something else to do, I got right back to being ill. Before things got too bad though, I met Roger, and being social and outgoing kept me going a while longer. He was 3 days into Honduras, spoke passable but not good Spanish, and was planning to head to La Ceiba for carnival, a real big, wild party from what I’ve heard. He was a business type, in Central America purely for pleasure, and one of those affable, good-natured types that do best at international travel because they’re willing to accept everything thrown at them. I was telling him about how I’d gotten to that point, through Belize, the Maya adventure, and was just telling him about how I’d woken up covered in my own vomit earlier on the bus when I realized I was going to blow chunks again. Excused myself with a “one moment, I think I’m going to paint the side of the bus,” closed the windows immediately behind mine, and projected what remained of my breakfast out my open window, liberally coating the side of the bus and some poor innocent bystanders’ 4runner that was at that moment passing us on the wrong side of the road. Thick ropey mucus and chucks of egg and meat bombed straight across the windshield of this poor family, and I locked eyes with the horrified, shocked mother sitting in the front seat as this vile mix rained down on their windshield. It was hilariously funny even as I was spilling my guts, and I’m just glad that the driver didn’t freak out and crash.

Anyway, pulled my head back inside feeling several levels better, and reflected on the intense amount of totally fucked I was. I had, minimum, another 6-7 hours of bus rides to go before Trujillo, and there was no way I wasn’t going to throw up again. Roger was laughing, puke was running back across the bus windows in little brown and cream rivulets, and I was just sitting there. I finished my story to Roger, and the ayudante came back with a sour look and a plastic bag. “You shouldn’t have thrown up on the bus,” was his comment – “Mis opciones fueron en o adentro – my options were on or in,” my reponse. Jackass. It kinda set the stage for our relationship this whole bus ride. I drank my 7up, ate a handful of crackers Roger had, and generally just prepared myself for an awful, no good, very bad, terrible, horrible trip.

When I next threw up 45 minutes or so later, everyone around me started to look a bit peeved. I got nasty looks from half the bus, people moved away, even Roger looked a bit green. I get it – who wants to be trapped near a guy blowing chunks and have to listen to that? Still, it was remarkable the amount of anger and resentment I saw in the eyes of my fellow passengers, and the complete dearth of sympathy as well. Me and my bag of vomit just sat there, stared blankly ahead, and welcomed death. I felt like hell on Earth. The puke water balloon I threw out the window was amazingly awesome, though it left me feeling vulnerable, as I had nowhere else to puke safely. Asked the ayudante for another bag, he didn’t have one. I ended up throwing up the next time into what had been my dirty clothes bag – a noble sacrifice made by an long-time traveling companion – the bag had been with me since I got it buying Red Bull in Garden Grove at the -ads house. Fuck I miss Red Bull. Sat in the front of the bus a while out of respect for the people who’d been sitting around me the whole time, chatted with the driver, and told him about my time with the Maya and thus why I was being sick all over his bus. He was actually pretty sympathetic, and thought my story was pretty hilarious. So I sat on the transmission cover, criss-cross applesauce as we balled down the road, sweeping both lanes, dodging potholes and slower vehicles.

Much respect for the driver – his job is intensely hard, requiring an iron will, an ability to accurately estimate velocity and trajectory of a lot of vehicles at once, and a keen sense of the capabilities of his old finicky bus. This guy was a pro. At some point Roger got off, and I said goodbye as he climbed down from the bus. Thinking about it, this means he must not have been going to Ceiba – oh well, he got where he was going. On his way out the door, he handed me another small plastic bag, and maybe it was the fact that I now possessed another stomach content receptacle that made me puke for the 5th time, after walking to the furthest back corner of the bus to stay away from everyone else. I didn’t really have anything to vomit except stomach acid at this point, and the burning throat and degraded enamel really added to the ambiance of this odyssey. I laid on the back two seats, eyes locked on the ceiling, and distracted myself by trying to write as much of this story in my head as possible – truth told, the deranged, dehydrated, sick version was a hell of a lot better, but it’s been 2 weeks now, and I’m losing the visceral connection I once had to these events. So be it, it’s probably just a coping mechanism.

In Ceiba, I bajared from the bus, got my pack on, and yakked my sixth time into a recycling bin next to a cabbie, who burst out laughing and offered me gum. I asked him for the ride to the nearest bus headed toward Trujillo, and after buying a couple anti-nausea pills, water bottles, ginger ale, and 3 plastic bags at a shady little liquor store, we set out driving – me still in that golden glow of post-vomiting, and him still laughing about my predicament. Nice guy, and he got me where I needed to be. Getting out of the taxi across from the bus station, I was just in time to see the San Pedro – Trujillo directo, the one I’d been told didn’t exist by 4-5 people at the San Pedro terminal, go roaring past. Fucking a. I go into the bus depot at 6, pay 5 Lempira to splash water on my face and wash myself up a bit, and look in the mirror – to my surprise, I look much less like haggard, awful death then I thought I would. Sweet deal. The guy inside the station told me I’d have to wait until the 7pm bus to go to Trujillo, and so I took my sweet time filling my water bottles, drinking ginger ale, and repacking part of my bag. Thus, when the next Trujillo bus roared past, I didn’t even see it until too late. Mother fuckers and their lack of schedule. Oh, and right about now the bus station guy is kicking me out so that he can lock up.

This gave me a very long time to sit on a dirty bench in an unknown city and ponder whether I’d be robbed for this set of awful decisions. I was considering finding a hotel and spending the remainder of my dwindling dinero when Paula came and sat down next to me. I immediately struck up a conversation in Spanish, because I figured being not alone in a foreign city was safer then the alternative. Plus, a thirty-something mother of 2 seemed the antithesis of someone who was going to rob me of my possessions and kidneys. She and I bantered for a while, talked about everything under the sun, my trip, mystery illness, her visit to Ceiba, the wild crowd that was in town for carnival, why in the hell I would stay in Honduras if I didn’t have to, (this one is common) and just generally got to know each other. She kept assuring me that the bus would come at 7, because there always was one. If not, there was a 7:30 bus that went as far as her home, and I could sleep there if need be. Always nice to be handed a plan b fully formed – unless that Plan B is the Capital Kind, and you’re using it to counteract a night of bad decisions and ripped latex.

Anyway, 7 rolls around, no bus. Fuck my life. Waiting some more, I’m about ready to throw in the towel and sleep at Paula’s when the bus actually does show up, at 7:25. We climb aboard, grab 2 seats, and lay back for the last 3 hour bus ride. I noticed around this point that I was actually perking up a bit – didn’t feel like I would do a repeat of “check out what I ate earlier” at least. Paula and I kept up our conversation, and I realized somewhere during it that I actually was pretty good at Spanish now, or at least I’m able to keep up, guess at meanings, and answer sufficiently – for me, remembering the trouble I had 3 ½ short months ago just talking about how I feel, what I need, asking basic questions, it’s like a Christmas miracle. I mean, I mispronounce words, show my gringo very clearly, and still have to pause, ask questions when I can’t find the words to say what I want, but I can talk about philosophical concepts, planting crops, tell my stories, and make it through pretty much any day-to-day activity I now encounter. This trip was great for the self-confidence, because after hundreds of miles, a dozen buses, and 3 countries, this realization that I could survive alone in the Honduras was pretty much unavoidable. I don’t even get the “I’m working so hard to speak and understand Spanish that I’ve given myself the brain pain” headaches all that much anymore, and that’s how I know I’m progressing.

After 2 hours or so, we reached Paula’s stop, where we exchanged phone numbers and I promised to come visit the next time I passed through. I might – she was a great lady – but I lost the slip of paper I wrote down all her information on, so I’d have to call and find that out again. I watched her out the window as we slip away into darkness, and reflected on how many times since I’ve been here that I’ve sat down, started talking to someone, and made a friend out of it – I almost never did this in the states; just open up a conversation with the closest person and end up with a new friend, a new name in my phone, and an offer of a place to come back and visit – here it happens a couple times a week, minimum. Different culture? Different K? Probably some of both, combined with the fact that I spend almost all my time without my friends, without my family, without my support structure to rely on. Making friends is no longer optional – it’s something I do to survive, to keep myself sane.

After Paula left, like immediately after, as we were pulling away, Jorge started asking me why I was in Honduras from across the center aisle. Not out of animosity, more a sense of “why is this white person here in my corner of the country – it’s far from everywhere, away from the touristy parts, and generally doesn’t fit into the Gringo Trail.” Thus, I struck up an hour conversation with a 26-year-old married primary school teacher and his shy friend or coworker or something. The other guy talked so little that I don’t think I even learned his name. Jorge was fun though, because he seemed really blown away that I could understand him, make jokes, and just tell stories. Is that rare in gringos? I guess it depends on what crowd you hang with. He kept asking me what I thought of Honduran girls, whether I had a girlfriend, a wife, kids – the common banter of Honduran men. As usual, my negative answer to the girlfriend&wife portion of that conversation drew more questions, namely “well why the fuck not?” which I’m still struggling to answer – I guess “I suck at girls” might work if it was true, but it’s more “I don’t do very well at emotional commitment right now,” but even that isn’t all of it. I’m kind of addicted to being free, tied to nothing, lighter then air, and now my problem is an over-cautiousness about doing anything that might rob me of this feeling. I can’t say that in Spanish, so I fell back on my easy lie of not having the language skills to effectively be in a relationship. I also told him I was afraid of girls because they eat your soul – that got a laugh and a “que verdad es” – how true it is.

When we hit the triangle between Trujillo and Castillo, at the T separating the towns, I debarked and rang the Casa Kiwi and hoped someone was awake, since I didn’t know what I’d be doing if not. Luckily someone was up to answer, and so I waited in the shadow of a big sign advocating condom usage for my ride, peed on a post, and stretched out the kinks in my poor back. Eventually, an old microbus rolled up to the triangle and stopped, and I rightly assumed this was for me. That’s how I met Joy, one of the regular crowd out here. She’s a kiwi, meaning a New Zealander, and a lifelong traveler, meaning a drinker, smoker, and a good listener. She listened good naturedly as I told the story of puking my way across Honduras, laughed at the right bits, and in no time at all, maybe 5 minutes, we were at the Casa Kiwi. My first impression was of the restaurant/bar area, and that’s good, because I’ve spent most of my time here in there. It’s a big, well lit, decorated There I met a whole lot of people I was to regret not meeting again – Jack, Emily, and others, and I just barely managed to stay upright and awake through introductions. After that, slipped off to bed, made a ridiculously long phone call to X to tell her the whole story, took my first hot shower since getting kicked out of the Peace Corps, and passed out naked in the empty dorm area of the hotel.

Sunset at the Casa Kiwi Sunset at the Casa Kiwi

Trujillo: 27 May to 1 June, 2009
I really wish that I could write about the second half of my trip and have it be half as interesting and wild as the first, but that’s not the sort of place Trujillo is. The last person to come here and have a wild crazy adventure was William Wallace, and he got himself hung for trying to take the place over. Instead, people come here to hide from their past, drink beers, rest, relax, and just kick back. The Casa Kiwi is pretty laid back in a “nothing fucking ever happens here, just sit and drink your beer already” sort of way. For the first day this was exactly what I needed – time to relax, think, recover, read. That’s exactly what I did: eat, hang out, play a few games of pool, go to the beach – the tourist wind-down thing. It was great – exactly what I needed, and I felt like a reformed man by dinnertime. My only regret is that I didn’t better meet Jack or Emily, as they had left on the midnight bus the night I got into town, and both had spent months working at Casa Kiwi. It didn’t matter much; I would have only seen them for 2-3 hours even if I had stayed awake, but hearing George talk about them gave me the sense that they were a pretty cool pair of people. But I get ahead of myself – here’s the Casa Kiwi crew, as of my first visit:

Chaz – Chaz owns the place, and she’s fantastic. An old backpacker, world traveler, and the kiwi in Casa Kiwi, she’s the sort who hasn’t been back home in 18 years, yet still self-identifies pretty strongly with her home country. Actually, I don’t know about that last statement – she doesn’t do much strongly except drink, smoke Belmonts, and come down on you when you fuck up. She’s a great teacher though, and under her I’ve learned to run this whole place, which is good because I pretty much run this whole place after 4 days. She swears like a sailor, I have no idea her age, and she’s been everywhere. She used to work for the UN, she’s done all sorts of NGO work, and she tells me that the Casa Kiwi was a short term plan that blew up, and now she’s been here 7 years. “Never settle down” she tells me, “just keep fucking going, and you’ll never grow old. Me, I set down here and now I’m stuck and old.” I think I’ll listen to her. All in all, I’ve got a lot to learn from Chaz.

I’m rereading this, and I think I’ve come off too hard on Chaz – she’s really sweet, but you have to earn her trust, as she’s been fucked over by old employees, guests, workers, visitors, old friends – I’m slowly learning that running a hostel puts you diametrically opposed to the wants of your guests, and so you can’t really be friends with everyone because what you need to survive as a business runs directly contrary to how friendship works. Fucking money – without it, Chaz wouldn’t have to be half as hard, or a quarter as joyless as she is now. Oh, but speaking of…

Joy – Joy is a joy to be around – always smiling, always happy to see you, always helpful. From the moment she saved me a 5 mile walk by picking me up at the triangle until now, I’ve never heard a mean word out of her. She’s about Chaz’s age, which is to say I haven’t asked either of them, but I think they’re both in their 50s. Joy lives with Chaz in the second story of the hotel, and I think they’ve been friends for ages – I’m pretty damn sure of it, but I’ve only been around them all for 4 days – I shouldn’t make too many guesses about everyone’s lives, relations, etc. She’s also a Kiwi, with that great accent, and has a perchant for naughty jokes – a winking “do me a favor and slip this on down between your legs there” as she hands you something to go behind the counter, etc. Anyway, Joy is great, even though I only saw her for a day and a half, mainly because she went on a wild road trip with…

Walter – Walter is a class act – a Canadian guy who drove down to Trujillo from Vancouver to deliver a truckload of used computers for a Catholic girls’ school in town. Along the way he had to fight with US customs (War on terror = keep the Canadians and their filthy used iMacs out) pay over $500 in bribes to Mexican police, and generally spend a hell of a lot more time and money getting himself and the computers down here then he had planned. When he finally arrived, the girls’ school told him that they didn’t have the money they had promised him, and didn’t even offer him a place to stay. Here’s how Walter reacted though – he gave them all the computers, spent weeks setting them up and teaching the students how to use them, built a local network, and pretty much went all-out helping these people who had just screwed him over. In his free time, he stayed almost 3 months at the Casa Kiwi, drinking, smoking, and storytelling.

I only got to experience a day and a half of Walter, but man oh man has he done a lot of crazy shit in his life, and carries himself with the world-weary posture of one who has seen it all, done it all, and faced chaos enough to know himself, but a few too many times to come out completely unscarred. As I fell gracelessly into the Casa Kiwi story, his tale here was sunsetting, and thus our paths crossed only for a moment. My second day here, he and Joy left to drive through Guatemala to El Salvador, then north up the west coast of Mexico, but that’s their story, not mine. Oh, one more thing – every day I got into the bar/restaurant at 8 or 9 am, and every day Walter was already into his second beer, or his second Coke, smoking Belmonts and reading the paper. According to George, his routine varied only in that some days he was in the third seat to the right of the bar, and others the second. An odd bird, but I thought he was fascinating. Here’s to his great upcoming trip, and I just hope he doesn’t get too distracted to miss seeing his son’s graduation back in Canada. Nice thing about Walter is that while he sat around by the bar, he’d take a lot of joking potshots at…

George – George is a college student who decided to run off to Central America with a friend of his and have a nice little trip before going back to school. Unfortunately for him, the friend got a job in New York and canceled, leaving George to his own devices. He elected to take the trip anyhow, and came here to Casa Kiwi to work a few weeks or months before heading south into Panama. When I got here he’d only been working a few days, and according to him he had made a royal fuckup of some sort every day – burning fry oil, forgetting to lock the doors at night, leaving valuable things outside – still though, he’s a good guy, just inexperienced in the working/traveling world. I can’t really talk – I’m still under 4 months into this – but he’s never really had the odd jobs and weird living situations that I’ve grown to see as normal, and so a good portion of my amusement here came from watching him adjust to the oddity of life. George and I got real close at Casa Kiwi, just because he and I were the only young people around, and we were working together more or less all of the time.

Here’s George: tall, goofy-looking white American college kid, typically dressed in a school shirt, cargo shorts, flip-flops. Clean cut, none of that young radical stuff, and just idealistic and adventurous enough to run off to Honduras and work in a hostel a few months. He got the bug – the adventure bug – right about the time I met him, and it came primarily from talking to and meeting all the other guests and staff who rolled through – everyone has their stories, their adventures to share, crazy happenings and wild fucked up times to talk about, and he was always listening, soaking it up, reveling in the good times shared. I could tell it bothered him that he never had anything to add to the mix, and so by the end of our time together, he was telling me how the new plan was to take off, burn all his money traveling south, and hopefully make a great road trip out of his summer. He asked me, “People like you man, I don’t understand em – you guys just have no fear – you go running off and there’s no safety net. What happens when you fuck up?” (Incidentally, that’s the next email!) I told him that really, there’s never any safety net beside the one you build for yourself, and that when it’s not there, you just have to adjust – live like there isn’t anything to fall on, build a buffer into your plans, and just accept that things could go bad and you can’t do anything about it. I hope he does well in his adventures, and I’m honored to be part of his impetus to get outside of his comfort zone. Anything to bring another soul over to our side. And just to keep the ellipse transitions going…

Diana – I’m including Diana on this even though she doesn’t talk to me, is perpetually grumpy, and seems to hate or just barely tolerate everything around her. She works here cleaning rooms, doing laundry, and washing dishes among other things. She really won’t give me any information about herself, except that she was born in nearby Castillo and has lived in the area her whole life. She might be married, might have kids, might be a secret agent, maybe she sells crack and jumps motorcycles in her free time – all I know is that she comes across as if she personally disdains you, and won’t talk to me beyond what is barely sufficient to express her needs, even when I make it abundantly clear that I speak Spanish and spend all our time together asking questions and trying to start a conversation. Kind of a bummer really, but oh well, we don’t spend a whole lot of time around each other, and maybe she’ll warm up to me eventually. If not, just know that a near-mute grouchy little Honduran woman works here too, and she’s not making it into the stories much because she doesn’t want to play nice.  Oh shit, that’s not all, what about…

Hefy – How could I forget Hefy?! This cat is the coolest cat in this joint, walked into Casa Kiwi one day 6 ½ years ago, and has been here ever since. He sits on the barstools and hangs out, climbs up and sleeps on fridges, loves to be scratched and pet, and is a sly little bastard – he’s not allowed to kill the myriad iguanas who live here, but does anyway, and if you catch him at it, he’ll drop it in a discreet locale, and just sit off to one side whistling cooly to his cat self – pretty funny act. He also is the first cat who I’ve seen that stretched out his back next to you begging for an always-given belly scratch. He works the crowd, gets doted on by all, and eats all the meat scraps – this cat has life figured out better then most.Found in my bathroom.

 

Working Class Whore:
After my first day at the Casa Kiwi, I didn’t have to money to stay on as a guest. Further, my plan all along had been to check out what it might be like to work there, meet my future coworkers, and what better way to do that then to, you know, work? Thus, at a bright and early 11am on Thurs 28 May, I became an “employee” which is in quotes because I’m here on a tourist visa – I can’t work in Honduras, it’s illegal, and thus if anyone who looks immigration inspectorish comes by, I’m volunteering, not working, or I’m a guest. I guess what I’m trying to say is that if Honduras had a version of the Minutemen, they’d be coming in here to badger us and throw out a few racial slurs – strictly about the illegal part though, not the immigrant. Here’s what my basic workdays looked like:

I’ve been working in the kitchen and behind the bar as well, everything from slicing veges to cooking to mixing Jack and cokes to restocking fridges to renting out rooms to answering the very occasional phone calls that come in when I’m working. In a nutshell, I do everything, and more every day, as I prove myself capable. The first day I peeled potatoes, played gopher, made mistakes, and generally was a 5th wheel in everything I did. George taught me how to lock up the restaurant at the end of the day, and so starting the second day I’ve been in charge of closing up – Chaz and Joy being more the morning type, and George leaving doors open all night pretty much got the job handed to me. Thus, my days start at 10, 11, noon, and go until the guests go to bed or 9pm, whichever is later. It’s not a bad gig at all, but leads to some ridiculously late nights.

Or at least it would, if there were any guests, which wasn’t really the case my first days here. We had 5 guests when I showed up, 4 after that, and 2 for the last couple days I was there. This meant that our work because less about customer service or hospitality, and more about cleaning fridges, preparing ingredients, and doing the repairs and preparations needed for some future date when we’d have clients or something. It wasn’t hard work, and something tells me that it rarely will be, but there’s always something to be done, cleaned, washed, prepared, diced, sliced, grilled, or wiped up. At least I (usually) don’t have to clean the individual rooms or wash laundry, but I’ve done both and I imagine I will again before this all ends. It’s really a lot of time consumed for not a lot of substantial gain, so I really didn’t have a lot of time to write – still I found this little number from my journal at the time:

5/30/09 – 10pm – I started work at 11am, just now laying my work duties aside to sketch the scene out. I’m mostly closed here in the bar, but have to be here a while longer to lock up, put things away, and clean. On the couches lie Mae and Graham, a British couple backpacking across Central America. He’s quiet, reserved, she’s antsy at having to wait for their ride at 12:30am. They’ve already checked out, but have nowhere to ggo and are just lying around killing time before their adventure hits the next high point. Pool sharks, former bar employees, long-distance travelers, I’ll miss them a good deal – plus they’re casi our only guests!

George is playing pool between loading web pages, trying to get his email past Tigo’s trickle of a data stream. Fucking awful connectivity here… That leaves me sitting here, closing bar, writing, itching bug bites. It’s a slow life at Casa Kiwi, and I’m just trying to adjust to the pace. Need to head back to Pespire soon, so hopefully I’ll get another cool event or 2 along the road. -k

One night, I forget which, we had a 7.1 earthquake only 50ish miles away, and man, that was a fucking shake and a half. I was lying in bed when for some reason, at about 1am, I woke up and sat up – wide awake, but I couldn’t figure out how or why. I started scanning the room, then saw Hefy outside the window, running in circles on the lawn, yowling like mad. Right as the word earthquake rolled through my mind, it started. The whole hotel started rolling, my top bunk shook dizzyingly back and forth. I jumped down, still in my sleeping sack due to my really wise decision to sleep nude again, and sack-raced my way to the doorframe. Standing there, holding tight to the wall, I rode out the wild bucking and listened to the building creak. Contemplated moving out to the lawn, but I wasn’t sure if I could make it without falling down. Plus, I figured the trembler would end soon – except it didn’t. 45 seconds or a minute is my best guess at length, because I had time to get over being scared, get tired of this whole Earthquake business, and start to think of other things, like “I wonder if this is going to be followed up by a Tsunami.” When it finally ended I got dressed and headed down to the beach for a while, but by 2, sand flies feasting on me beat out concern for the killer wave that wasn’t coming, so I went back to bed and passed out cold.

Next day we found out that there had been a ton of damage in other cities, Ceiba and the like. A few bridges were down, a lot of buildings damaged, though all the collapsed ones seemed to be government owned – big surprise there, half the money went into someone’s pocket instead of building supplies. Oh yeah, and then that day after, we had a wildfire that came within 100 yards of our place, spitting distance, and the fire truck wasted all its water spraying bushes and trees while a nearby house almost burnt to the ground.  Then the truck got stuck in mud and they had to leave it until a guy with a 4×4 pulled them out.  Jackass firefighters, but cool guys – they came over and hung out in the bar and drank while George and Chaz and I took turns watching for a shift in the winds.  Thankfully that never came, and the fire burned its way tot he beach and then went out.  No lasting harm, nothing too bad, just exciting and a little taste of home – made me remember the time we lived in the evacuation zone in Santa Barbara during some hellish fires, but this didn’t quite compare.  Anywho, fire wasn’t too bad, and the story didn’t end sadly, so I guess that’s all well and good.

Actually there was one more interesting story here in Honduras, but it definitely wasn’t mine. This guy Alejandro I think, went by Alex, was one of the long-term guests here at Casa Kiwi. Because this place is the cheapest legitimate hotel around Trujillo, we get a fair number of people who come into town for work staying here for weeks or even months at a time. Alex was one of those, a late-20s US college grad but a Honduran native, who had shown up a long time before I did, lived at the Kiwi, and worked for a company based out of San Pedro organizing the local fishermen. Or at least that was the idea, but in honesty it seemed like a total fucking scam – Alex wasn’t getting paid on time, was basically living out of his meager savings, eating one meal a day if that, working 15 hours or more, smoking 2 packs a day – all nerves and frustrated energy, with his bosses giving him none of the resources or tools he needed, no money, and not even communicating with him. It was a fucked up situation, and so my second night here when we were sitting around sipping beers, George and I told Alex just that, over and over, until he resolved to quit the very next morning – I don’t think we were the impetus behind that, but we might have been the spark.

Alex made good on his promise, and that next morning when I walked into the restaurant he was sitting there at the bar all smiles. “I finally did it,” he said “and it was so easy!” I congratulated him, figured that was the end, but it got crazy from there. The bosses who couldn’t be bothered to deal with supply problems, a general strike by the fishermen, or any of the other issues Alex had been single-handedly mopping up, arrived at the Casa Kiwi that very night to badger and cow and other animal him into staying at his awful non-paying job. Thus we were all treated to morning and nightly high-speed Spanish verbal abuse heaped upon Alex by these 2 shitheads, everything from telling him what an awful, lazy, idiot he was to letting him know that they knew all the good employers in San Pedro Sula (where Alex was going) and that they were going to let slip to all the other employers that Alex was an awful person. Also, Alex couldn’t possibly get a job now, the economy is too bad, he was going to starve and die without their graciousness in letting him keep the job that wasn’t giving him money, oh but it would some day he just needed some faith, to stay the course, to actually do some hard work for once… It continued like this every day the guys were here, same themes, same topics, until finally George and I and whoever was off-duty would go and join them at their table ostensibly to practice Spanish and meet them, but really just to get these morons to shut.the.fuck.up!

Luckily, Alex saw through their transparent ploy – them having revealed all their cards by rushing 7 hours to Trujillo and paying all of Alex’s expenses pretty clearly showed that they needed him more then he they – and so a great little game started, with Alex charging larger and more lavish meals, huge bar tabs, and other expenses onto their account, and the bosses absorbing the expenses while thinking that they could turn Alex back to their side. Thus, when Alex left for San Pedro and stuck them with the huge bill, I sat back and smoked my mental cigarettes, savoring the sweet hint of schefreuden, and calmly listing out the tab for the benefit of all. In 3 days, Alex had cost these guys about $250, not a lot from the US point of view, but considering that he’d been living on about $12-15 a day before they came, lets just say Alex was sitting pretty high on the hog the last few days. I shook his hand as he left for the bus station, we exchanged a laugh about the fucked up situation, and I watched him ride out of Casa Kiwi, the month of May, and my life simultaneously as the sun set behind me, ruining what was shaping up to be a fantastic metaphor.

Speaking of the end of May, here’s what I wrote on the night of the 31st:

3/31/09 – The end of another month – and what a fuckup, throwdown, fuckdown, throwup month it was. Maya, puking, Peace Corps drama, rain, shitting my ass off – starting in a dark pit, the waves of this turbulent month have receded to leave me in a windswept little hostel on the north coast, Honduras. Definitely a change, and I do so like those. I’m content here, for the time being – I don’t know if I’ll be able to stay long, it’s a bit slow for my pace of life – but I’ll get a lot of writing done at least. There’s wildlife, ants to pee on, scorpions, tarantulas in my bathroom, an occasional wild dog or three. Definitely not my sort of long-term stop, with only a few adventuring souls to meet, and a whole lot of nothing to do.

Tonight late I head back to Pespire to tie up loose ends and decide which life I’ll lead from here. Another long night of buses, and I’ll be in the familiar lands again. I hope one or 3 those girl engineers is hot… find out Tuesday. More later, gonna smoke 2 joints in the afternoon, cause I’ll be too busy to smoke 2 joints at night. -k

So that was about it for the Casa Kiwi – long slow days, beautiful sunsets, a few interesting characters, a pet cat, and an abrupt lifestyle change from Belize, an even bigger change from Pespire. I’ll write more about it here if and when I come back, but if not, I hope this gives you at least a taste of how things go here. If you’re ever in the north of Honduras and want to head somewhere well off the beaten path, this place is perfect to lie back, drink a few beers, and have long winding conversations with the local color. At 12:30 I took the bus out of Trujillo station, directo to Tegucigalpa, slept the whole ride, and woke up in the predawn light in some town I don’t even know the name of. Ate an early morning plato tipico, eggs, beans, tortillas, ham, and squeaky cheese, then back on the bus for a few more hours until we hit Teguc around 9am. Hopped a 9:30 bus south, and was home in Pespire by 11am, stinky, dirty, and newly friends with a wizened old matador named Pablo – he kept going, off to fight a few bulls in Nicaragua, but my trip ended here – 14 days, 2 weeks on the road, traveling by the seat of my pants, constantly short of cash, without plans or maps, and I survived anyway. I’m just elated, stoked to have done it all without major fuckups, getting robbed, lost, and to have met so many good and wonderfully interesting people in my travels. It couldn’t have gone better, and the battery is fully charged for another couple months.

P6060003

Epilogue – Back in Pespire:
So that about brings us all up to speed on the present – I’m sitting here typing by candlelight, trying to get this finished before the last 54% of my battery drains out. The spare battery, mind you, because the other one drained itself torrenting the new Strung Out album while the power was out. Whoops. I’ve got Chopin in my headphones, bugs swirling around my candle, and a million and one things I want to say, but no space, time, or the right words. Going anyway.

Since getting back to Pespire, I’ve basically just worked my ass off, writing this whole story, trying to get ready to move to Trujillo in a few days, doing job applications, helping the family when I can. The American girls coming down to help has turned into a total bust – the NGO pretty much set them up with different people and programs from start to finish, turning me into a completely useless and largely ignored sidekick. I don’t play that role very well, so after the first day of trying to help them and realizing they didn’t need it, I gave up on that angle, and have been spending my last week here trying to say goodbyes, fit everything into bags, riding an emotional rollercoaster, reconciling my desire to help people with my upcoming job at the hostel that helps nobody who really needs it. I really don’t know how it’ll all turn out, but I feel like I can’t help, can’t even try, if I go back to the states whereas if I’m down here, even if I’m not directly working toward my goals, I can at least make progress toward them in some regard. That’s the hope anyway, and I’ve been losing far too much sleep trying to make it into my reality.

Making it worse, my host family is hurt that I’m leaving, and they’re not telling me, but instead letting it slip out in passive aggressive little bursts, just enough to get under my skin and make me feel like an awful human being. Case in point: today. I spent all working. Literally, I rolled out of bed, and responded to 3 Craigslist emails before I went pee or got a drink of water. I had a brief conversation with the housekeeper before sequestering myself completely in my little productive bubble of music, and she told me I needed to go work with my host dad today. “Swell, I’ll do it after lunch, like I have been every day” was my line of thought on that one. I was pedal to the metal all morning, did some writing, a lot of emailing, packed a few things, bought some essentials before moving to the isolated Casa Kiwi full time. Mainly, I’m just trying to keep afloat in my US life as well as my Honduran one, and that takes a whole lot of networking and just plain hard work. After lunch, which was my first meal of the day, I headed down to the store under the hotel to see what I was going to spend the afternoon doing.

You see, I’ve been staying with this great family who took me in after I got myself booted from the Peace Corps, and they’ve been just like another family to me. I don’t know what I would have done without them these past 3 months, to be honest. I’ve always tried to be real respectful, gracious, and helpful to them, because I’m very grateful and they are big on those things. I’ll do a lot of little tasks to help out, wax the truck, build a gas grill, program the TV, entertainment center, set up surround sound, stuff that I can do fairly easily, but which helps them out. Basically, I make myself useful. Except now that I’m back this week, I’m stupid busy, and I can’t give them all day right now, and I can’t explain that to them – not for lack of trying. So I’ve been doing half days, 3-4 hours in the afternoon, helping to reorganize and clean their store. I don’t get paid for this mind you, but I also don’t pay to live here. It’s not a bad exchange, except when I can’t, physically can’t, do it. They want to work all day, and I write best in the middle of the night. Consequently, they expect to start about 3-4 hours after I go to bed, because they’re the “early to bed, early to rise” types, and I’m of the “fuck all that noise” school. Thus, when I wake up at 9 after my pitifully short night, they’ve generally been at work for 2 hours already, and when I show up, they’re deep into whatever needs to be done that day.

When I entered the store and saw half of it rearranged , I felt like I’d missed something big. This was the sort of work I was pretty much always brought in for, moving things, reorganizing, building. Yet nobody had even called my cell, or told me about it when I was there all afternoon before building tables and desks and shelving. I ask the Profe where I can help out, and she tells me that I need to go talk with the Don, across the street in the family restaurant. Alright then, cross the street, head into the restaurant, host dad and aunt sitting there with the financial books out, dad looks tired and pissed. I come into the room and they both stop and turn to look at me. Well fuck, this isn’t going well already… I barely get off a “Buenas tardes, ¿como están?” when he’s telling me, raised, not-fucking-around voice, that he cannot believe I would disrespect him, telling me how angry he is with me, and really ripping into me. “You live in my house and eat my food and you do nothing!” was a good one to my tired and not-up-for-this mind. I let him finish, then asked him why he didn’t call me, or tell me when I needed to work.

Our conversation the night before had included a brief reference to me needing to do a lot of work with him the next day, but we’d never actually talked time, because all the work I’ve ever done with them has been solitary, done when I have free time. Apparently group efforts start on normal people time, and I’d missed the heavy lifting part of today’s exercise. He tells me that the housekeeper had reminded me this morning, hadn’t she? Well yes, but she also neglected to mention the time, specifically “you’re already late now” part of that message. Legitimate miscommunication, I apologize, try to explain, and find that I can’t. It just proved above my ability to put concisely and clearly, and he wasn’t in the mood to hear it anyway. I sighed, sat there silently until he was done trying to browbeat me and sent me back across the street.

There I was put to work moving large stacks of paper and plastic dishware, cups, and utensils from one set of high shelves to another set of high shelves slightly out of arm’s reach (at one end, in arm’s reach) of the first. Luckily, there were two of us assigned, so we could just toss things, right? No, turns out she can’t catch for flinching. Well, at least I can hand things across to her from my ladder, or would have had she been willing to lean, or do anything more active then hold her hand out as I leaned out precariously between us to hand things individually to her. Dumb luck and surface tension were holding me up half the time. Still, we got things done quickly when we employed the “you don’t move, I’ll hand you everything, just organize” strategy, so there’s that.

Next up were the preparations for the soccer game, USA vs Honduras, that everyone has been waiting and hoping for down here for months. Literally, months. Since the last World Cup Qualifer game Honduras played, I’ve taken a steady stream of well-meant abuse over who was going to win, who I was rooting for, etc. My joke was that Honduras had better win, because if the US did, I’d have to go into hiding for a while. It’s a real big deal down here, and I doubt many of you, maybe not any of you, are following the qualifiers. Let me break it down for you – in our division, USA is doing very well, holding second behind Costa Rica, Honduras is holding onto third, Mexico is nipping at her heels, El Salvador and Trinidad & Tabago are bringing up the rear. Top 3 teams in the group go on, and if Mexico wins a game that Honduras loses, they’re going to lose their spot in the next round of the World Cup. It’s the big thing down here, a source of pride, speculation, anxiety, and wild hope, because unless you’re in the USA, the World Cup is the biggest of big deals. So yeah, I was rooting for Honduras too, and I’ve been waiting on this game since the last one.

However, this time I’m apparently working the game, and there’s no way I can say no after this morning – I’m already on the shit list. We start out stocking fridges, running wires, putting speakers out and setting up tables and chairs. Next, we’re hooking up the TVs, cable, sound, all the fixings for the hotel game party, where the locals come to get loaded and excited together about soccer. It’s fantastic – 2 or 300 people packing the top floor of the hotel, yelling and cheering together, aided by the constant flow out of the bar, which is where the payoff comes from. Anyway, setting up, doing sound testing when the power goes. Also, when the daily storm opens up. Except this one is a good one. Good enough to take the power out and keep it out, as evidenced by my sitting here late at night with 9 minutes of laptop battery and a candle. Gotta finish tonight. So we start improvising. Antenna is still up on the roof, lets rewire the plasma screen to the antenna, set the volume all the way up on that, then do the same with the projector and get that picture up, throw a rope off the third story to pull up a cable from the gas-powered generator to power it all plus the beer fridge. A pretty piece of work, and after that there’s nothing to do but wait out the storm and watch squiggly antenna TV until the storm dies down or the game starts.

The storm gave out first, for a little while. There was a calm just before gametime, and the place flooded with bodies. I was working bar at this point pouring beers, grabbing more, pour, grab, pop bottles, throw empties in a heap. It was a pretty good rush, and the game had already started when I got a big enough break to see it. I had already missed the first goal, Honduras, heard the cheering, missed the replays, but the US seemed pretty dominant in the minute or two I saw before I needed to get more bottles from downstairs. Threaded the crowd, got sodas and beers, and got back in time to hear the first US goal as I came up the stairs. Fuck. More working, beer, dirt, slippery, rain drizzling in, sticky hot, taking 3 orders at once as people were drinking to hurt themselves. One man I saw drinking a lot, so I started counting. By 9pm he’d had 17 and had to be carried home. It was a madhouse, constant motion, cheering, people sitting on the floor, windowsills, standing on the stairs to catch a glimpse of the grainy image. They made up their own commentary, yelling and whooping and arguing above the general din of hundreds of restless and excited people.

Anyway, missed all 3 goals, the big controversial call, even the end of the game. US won, 2-1, I saw about 6 minutes, spread across the middle somewhere. The bar did great though, sold 2 stand up fridges worth of drinks, and actually ran out of alcohol by the end of the night. Then as they cleaned the bar I put away all the tables and chairs and picked up all the trash with Cheli, the hardest worker I’ve ever met. Locked things up, and at10pm I came home with host dad, who reiterated his disappointment in me, ate dinner in the dark, said my goodnights, and came in here to type, where I’ve been for 2 hours and 50 minutes, as that’s all the battery I get. And that’s how I roll in Pespire! All fun and games until someone’s feelings get hurt, or I fuck things up by misunderstanding. Monday or Tuesday I’m off to Trujillo again, so my next update ought to be from there – no promises. Until next time, I’ll keep having adventures if you’ll keep reading about them. (and probably would have them anyway, lets be honest.)

-k

Thriller! Thriller!

PS. Ok, so it’s Sunday, 14 June now, and I’m sitting in Sensenti, Ocotepeque, on the western edge of Honduras. I haven’t had internet for a while, broke iPhone, and I’m headed to Trujillo in a few minutes/hours, I don’t really know. Point is, I’ve had another fantastic adventure, made new lifetime friends, and probably gotten a job teaching 5th grade, and it precluded me telling you this story – not going to apologize for that, just sayin’. I hope to have that all written down soon, and if not, it’ll be worth the wait. Hope you enjoyed the 48+ pages of wild times and puking-on-self action. I know I did!

The Last Hurrah

May 19, 2009

I wrote this in late January 09, right before life got crazy and I ran off to Honduras.  It’s not my happiest piece of writing, but it was a great trip looking back, and has some well-written parts, if I may flatter myself.  One of my other posts is contained entirely within this one, but that part was completed well before the rest, and I think it stands alone fairly well.  Hope you enjoy!

I have this battery inside me, and when it runs down, I fall apart. Life gets dull and the fire inside starts to ember and cool, and all of a sudden everything in my world falls to shit. I fight with old friends and family, get snappy and abrasive, and sometimes even fall physically ill if I let it die down. In order to recharge it, I have this constant need for randomness and chaos – perfect for a life exploring and partying, but not so good for settling down, being responsible, and living a normal life. This is the story of my latest adventure, my latest recharging, lest I forget it, and in case anyone is interested in what I’m up to.

This is a metaphor.

This is a metaphor.

First, a little backstory: I’ve wanted to take a California road trip for a while now – ever since I left Santa Barbara and known that I was going to join the Peace Corps, the idea had been rattling around in my gourd. The problems were money and time, and having neither, I let the road trip slide and resolved myself to working in SB for my last summer in the country.

So when my service got delay at the end of last summer, the silver lining was that I now had the time to take a wild trip or three and say goodbye to my good friends and family. I of course didn’t take advantage of this for months, the result of working 2 jobs, 1 of which was nigh-impossible to get time off from. However, I used my free time to plan out my travels, and the jobs got me out of debt and gave me a small cash pile to feed myself and my car. For a while, the thought of running away was literally all I had to look forward to – the Peace Corps was dragging its feet waiting for a new assignment to open up (Honduras, leaving Feb 24) and I really couldn’t stand San Diego. The town is too spread out, too Conservative (big C), and just too unfriendly. I found a kindred spirit in one of my coworkers, picked up a stalker and some friends from ballroom dancing, but by and large I spent the last few months with my close family or working my ass off. I’m not good at making new friends in the first place, and this suburban nightmare really didn’t help.

Anyhow, the battery was already running low, and the holidays didn’t help much. I worked too much, went without vices or companionship, and worst of all, my attempted road trip had to be aborted at the first stop, Garden Grove, because I got too sick and started seeing double while driving. By the time I had recovered, it was too late to head far, and I never made it past SLO and SB. Not that living with my old roommates for a week wasn’t a blast, but I didn’t get out on the road, didn’t see the world, missed half the people I wanted to see and didn’t recharge enough to pull myself out of the slump. Worse, I blew all my money drinking and living and buying shit I didn’t need, and for a while it looked like my plans for adventure had all turned to ash.

I got a lucky break though, as I returned home to find that an old employer from SB (Wedding/Event Florist, Worst. Job. Ever.) had finally mailed me my last check, only 4 months late. Along with a couple weeks running the swim store, I scrounged enough together to pay for another wild run up the state, and I started scheming.

Sunset over San Onofre

Sunset over San Onofre

SUNDAY: My plan was simple enough – I didn’t really make one. I hate planning vacations, simply because it tears all the chaos and impulsiveness out of life, and it just stresses me out. That said, I had a basic outline based on things I wanted to do, and the time I had off work.

The idea was that I would leave after work on Sunday the 18th, drive as far north as I could, hopefully hitting San Jose before I fell asleep driving. Over the next week I was to hit as many friends along the coast as possible, while spending 1/20 in San Francisco for the inauguration. (And really, where else aside from San Francisco was I going to find a whole town celebrating the end of a terrible era? Certainly not San Diego!) From there the plan got a bit fuzzy, but I knew that I needed to make it south to Santa Barbara by the 23rd for a masquerade and didn’t care what else happened. As it turned out, this was the perfect approach to the week ahead.

The trip started out right on schedule: I closed up at work, filled Sally’s fuel tank and my own, and hopped on the 5 North. Now, as anyone who has driven 5 for the long haul can attest, it is absolutely mind-numbing. Nothing for scenery, few real stops, a lot of cows, a few prisons, and hundreds of miles of open road. I love it, but I can’t blame most people for feeling differently. I love looking up and seeing a million billion stars splashed across the sky, and if you ever pass a driver hanging his head out the window and looking straight up on 5 in the middle of California, chances are you’ve found me. It’s not the safest way to drive, either.

Even loving solitude and stars as I do, there’s still a lot of vacant time to kill on a drive up the state. I’ve gotten a bit sick of my music lately – especially the stuff I have on CDs – and there’s a certain point where you lose a lot of the radio stations, get tired of talking to yourself, and you’re left to your own devices. I have yet to figure out how to write and drive without crashing, so generally that means bringing in some outside help.

I have this old flame, a girl with whom I have a lot of history; the person who made me realize what “love” actually means. Years back, I’d fallen for her hard, and she had liked me too, and we’d struck up one of those relationships between lost souls. She made me happy, and gave me a reason to live in some of the darkest points of my life. I like to think I returned the favor, but who really knows what goes on inside the heads of others? Our problem was distance – we never lived close, a 100 miles at best – and our infrequent meetings and long-distance longing weren’t able to overcome the terrible strain of the gap between us. Life got busy with both of us in different colleges, working at crossed hours, far out of sight. We started to fight, she found a closer guy, and I learned what “heartbreak” meant too. Long story short, we were right for each other in a world wrong for us both.

As to why I called her, out of anyone I know, it’s because we’re still close friends. The advantage of getting very close to someone who lives so far away is that you end up with a confidante, a soulmate who won’t judge you, or even if they do, can’t do anything about it. We’ve leaned on each other more times then either of us could count over the years, and I can usually count on her for a long deep conversation.

Lately though, things have gotten both worse and better between us. Worse in that we both know I’m leaving the country soon and paths are about to split, but better in that we have both admitted that there still is something there between us. The “L” word (not lesbian) comes up a lot more often as my departure comes near, probably because it’s easier to be honest with someone who is leaving your life, but also because the two of us have gotten a lot closer over the past months. Thinking about it, things have really just gotten worse – it’ll hurt all the more for me to go – but what the hell, I’m a glutton for punishment, and she’s always worth talking to.

So there I am, driving too fast up the 5 toward the unknown, voice from my past in my ear, and I’m in love with this life. I like to think I’ll die like this, and if I did, it would be the most beautiful way to go out. I think about death too much like art: the reality is nowhere near as good as what we imagine. I tell her that thought, and she says she understands; she always does. It’s all I can do to keep going north instead of cutting over to the coast to spend the night with her. I have to fight myself at every highway interchange – 126, 46, 42 – until finally I’m free of my sirens. She has to go out with her friends, she tells me, after I’ve passed my test of will. I can hear the disappointment in her voice, and in mine as well: we both needed a good fuck. Goodnight babe, we’ll meet up again soon. She hangs up the phone, and I’m left wet around the eyes, again to my own devices. I’ll miss her terribly when I’m gone.

I stop off in a no-name “town” somewhere north of the 5-46 exchange. It’s really just a couple of gas stations with built-in fast food dispensers. I can’t dignify them with the name restaurant, that’s an insult to too many shithole diners and truck stop watering holes. These are just gas stations for people as well as cars – open your tank, pour in some fuel, (87, low grade all the way) and hit the road again. I opt for some trail mix, chewing gum, and a red bull, which is still probably better than Taco Hell, in a starving-yourself sort of way. I’m too excited, nervous, anxious to be hungry just yet. Sally’s gassed up, I have a few snacks to chew on, and so off we go again. I glance at the dashboard clock – 9:30pm, 2 hours to go. I’m on the road.

The next couple hours are barely worth talking about. I sing sad songs and drive too fast, and the hours fly by. Sally does her job and my phone’s GPS makes it too easy to find Jake’s apartment in San Jose. Actually, the iPhone was a blessing this whole trip – the Bay area is insane in terms of roads and signage. Somewhere around 5-101 I was passed by a beautiful girl in an old Charger, and I fell in love with them both. We played around, passing each other, throwing winks and smiles, until I blew her a kiss and took my turnoff. Another life, perhaps, but for now I had somewhere else to be. I call Jake, find a parking spot, and somewhere around 11:30 or so, I’ve reached my destination for the first day.

San Diego to San Jose is not a bad drive, under 7 hours if you drive like an idiot, (I sure do) and I’m too wired to sleep. Luckily, Jake is the sort of guy who, despite working early the next morning, is completely ready and willing to have a good time. Further, he’s a party in-and-of-himself. If you’re going to go on an adventure in Norcal, a stop at Jake’s is highly recommended.

How do I describe Jake? Well, here’s how I met him this time: I’m getting out of Sally and stretching when this mustachioed hipster in a red leather jacket and flannel shirt comes over and greets me. His striking red beard has transformed into a handlebar mustache, he has hair like a beatnik, and he dresses like the clothes were designed for him. The guy is just cool – he makes me look bad just by being around, but at the same time, you can’t help but love him. If I’m Saul Paradise, he’s Dean Moriarty: the bad boy, full of energy, who all the guys want to be friends with and all the girls want to.. you know… be better friends with.

Not that he’s short of either friends or fucks, but the real thing you notice about Jake is his energy. Before the bags are even out of my car, he’s telling me a dozen wild stories, how he saw a Johnny Cash cover band, got drunk and shaved himself a handlebar, (looked hysterical) how he might have a gig with a band, the joint some bum gave him in exchange for a cigarette, and the girl at the pizza parlor across the street who wants to know if he’s down to just “fuck around.” Jake always amazes me in that while I have to go out in hunt of adventure, it all just seems to come looking for him. Plus, he’s the youngest in our group of friends, yet he’s the one with the stable job and responsibility. If life was possibly made for a certain type of person, Jake is that type.

Further, he has a fantastic apartment. It’s this little hole-in-the-wall off one of the main streets in San Jose, hidden right above the street, where you can look out the window and watch the whole world unfold beneath you. Great location, and the entrance is hidden right between a couple stores – if you don’t know it exists, the place pretty much doesn’t.

So I follow Jake up the stairs, and we’re carrying a ton of bags and boxes, not because I travel with too much stuff, (quite the opposite) but because I somehow got stuck with all of the left-behind possessions when we all moved out of our shanty in Santa Barbara. Of Jake’s, I had his old trumpet, alto sax, and a mic stand – Jake being of course an incredible musician; almost a one-man band.

Anyhow, here’s the scene: second story landing, middle of the night, two guys loaded down with cases and bags and odds and ends. Jake opens the door to his apartment, and all the familiar smells of our life together pour out. Beer, pot, a hint of mystery, bachelorhood. Fuck, for a minute I’m transported right back to our glory days in Isla Vista. It’s all I can do to keep myself from tearing up. I miss that old life so badly, even if I’ve since outgrown it.

We’re dropping stuff off in Jake’s sitting, dining, tv, recording studio room (did I mention it’s a tiny flat? It is.) and he introduces me to his neighbor, this girl Jessica, or Jennifer, or some name I’ve since forgotten, since that is my thing. We drink the last round of beers in the house, smoke a bit, fall back into our routine of inseparable friends living now separate lives. It’s both heartwarming and terribly sad that Jake and I can be at once so close, and yet interact so little. It says a lot about our friendship, but I always feel a bad friend for not keeping in touch.

Once the beers are drained we walk across the street to the liquor store for some more drinks. Outside the liquor store we pass a group of kids, probably 14-15, hanging out smoking cigarettes. One of them asks us if we can buy them a swisher – potheads starting early. I say sure, and Jessica takes their money. Inside, Jake and I go for the beer, Hefeweizens tonight, while Jess buys the cigarillo. The clerk almost doesn’t sell it to her, but she begs one out of him. They really ought to just let kids fuck themselves up early – the stigma drugs get in this country prevents anyone from acknowledging they exist, much less dealing with them rationally. We pass the kids their prize on the way out of the store, and walk the ½ block home. At the corner, we pass a guy pressure washing the sidewalk, and seeing the beer, he stops and flashes us a smile as we walk by. I think poor people are good people, at least to each other.

Back at Jake’s, we pass the night drinking a few rounds while Jake DJs with his record collection. He’s great at it, and we’re listening to the Stones flow into Cake rolling through Zepplin. I’m telling stories about our lives in Santa Barbara and about the Peace Corps, and Jess and Jake tell me about their good times in San Jose. At some point, I tell Jess that I’m going to run for president, and give them both a campaign pitch. I’m not even sure what all I rambled about, but I made a decent impression, I think. As Jess was leaving, she told me I had her vote, and to go change things, and I said that I knew that I did, and that I would. Around 1:30 or 2, Jake and I go to bed, and I pull the “foot on the floor, hand on the wall” routine to keep the room steady. I’m out of drinking shape, and it shows. I drift off on Jake’s futon, and dream of San Francisco to come.

The Famous Jake (and Kelly's foot makes a guest spot)

The Famous Jake (and Kelly's foot makes a guest spot)

MONDAY: Monday was a drifter day, and I spent most of it killing time before my Uncle was home and I had a place to go in San Francisco. Around 7 or so, I woke up dimly to watch Jake leaving, and we exchange farewells as he goes off to the real world. I nod off again, and pull myself out of bed around 9. I didn’t plan for today – nowhere to go, no plans, nothing – and so I waste the morning away getting high and doing calisthenics. ($5 word) Around 11, I’m debating food versus another beer, when a repairman knocks on the door and tells me that he needs to replace the fusebox and so he’s shutting off the power for a few hours. I beg 15 minutes out of him to shower, and then sit and watch him and another guy just on the off chance they’re not very dedicated con artists.

These guys… I don’t know their names, but they were Larry and Curly – just a comedy of errors and miscommunication. Larry, short, stout, bald, and bossy is trying to teach Curly, tall, pale, lanky, and goofy how to replace the box, but it’s like everything is being shouted through a small tube. If Larry says left, Curly cuts a few wires; if Larry yells stop, Curly almost cuts a hole through the wall with the sawzall. I almost offered to lend a hand, but I think they would have taken it as an insult. Instead, satisfied they weren’t going to steal Jake’s recording equipment, I walk down the street to the best little ravioli place in the world.

Just my luck – it’s closed Mondays – so I settle for Chinese across the street. Waiting outside, I’m struck by how much this part of San Jose resembles Main Street USA. The people walking, the architecture, the small-town feel; it’s a really cool place to hang out, and I’m considering taking a walk when the lady from the Chinese joint brings out my order. I came very close to forgetting my food!

Back up in Jake’s apartment, I’m sitting by his living room window watching the world and eating lo mein and writing in my journal. While I’m doing all this and silently laughing at Larry and Curly working, Jake comes home. Turns out he comes home for lunch, and I just got it without him – some friend. He goes for a sandwich, is back in 5 minutes, and we talk shop and eat. When he’s done, we say our goodbyes (nothing serious: I’ll be back in 2 days) and he heads back to work. I promise to make sure the workmen are done and lock up after, and I’m left alone in Jake’s life again.

A couple hours later, 4 or so, Larry and Curly finish fucking around and finally install the fusebox, and I’m on the road again. 280 straight through to San Francisco, easiest directions in the world. I make the trip in a little under an hour, and I’m soon pulling up to my aunt and uncle’s place.

Perfect timing too – as I’m parking I see Howard pull into their driveway and start to unload. Time for a little Uncle-Nephew bonding, and to be honest I’m not sure what to expect. We haven’t hung out much outside of family gatherings, but to be honest, I’ve always had the sneaking suspicion that he’s a much more fun and much less restrained person outside of those confines. I sure as hell am. We unload his van and my car, say our hellos, and go inside.

Howard and Wendy have a great old house in San Francisco: tiny, multi-storied, built before the age of pre-fabricated over-engineered homes. It has soul, like any old house, and the garage actually has carriage tracks from ye olde days. They’re lifelong activists, and the garage is a museum of old political signs and slogans. I see Mondale, No Nukes, Gay Rights Now, and a lifetime of causes staring back at me from the walls. They’re my kind of people, and their eclectic old house has always felt like home.

While Howard is taking a shower, I charge the gadgets, stretch out a bit, and generally kill time. I’m fantastic at it, because I’ll just sit and think deep for a bit, and before I’m through everyone else is ready to go. So sure enough, I’m only halfway through planning out a permanent Peace Coalition of activist groups to oppose AIPAC and the Pentagon’s handlers when Howard asks me what I feel like eating. For a second I’m at a loss but I remember that Devon, the only San Franciscan I’ve lived with, used to go on about Ethiopian/Eitrean cuisine, and so I ask Howard if there is any. He of course knows the perfect place, just a 2 mile walk, and so wallet, keys, phone, jacket, off we go.

It takes me only a few blocks to remember why I fall in love with this city every time I visit. The air, the crowds, the architecture all draw me in, but I think more then anything it’s the fact that I can walk a few miles and visit a dozen worlds. I can be a perfect stranger there, no matter how long I spend in the city. Different tongues, different faces, a sea of unknowns. For someone like myself, I can’t imagine a better place to spend my time.

We bop along down toward market, talking politics and art, graffiti and activism and parties and girls. My uncle is a cool cat, and he tells me stories about the changes he’s seen in the city over the years, and points out highlights as we pass them. He’s so damn organized and cool and on top of his game that I feel inadequate almost – I’d hate to plan things out like he does, but I can’t deny how well he lives because of it. We’re both fast walkers, like everyone here, and with the conversation and my giddy energy, we make the walk in no time.

The place we eat at, like most of the restaurants in the city, is a hole in the wall that I never would have found unless I was looking for it, or perhaps if I was using Yelp. It’s small, cramped, full of foreign smells and names and walking inside I might be in another country, or another world altogether. We take a small table off to the side of the room, and a young man in blue jeans and a white T-shirt comes over. Informal – I dig it. We get a round of blue moons, and my uncle orders a list of dishes I could hardly pronounce. I’m in his world now, so I just let him pick what we eat; not like I’ll do better by picking at random.

Our food! When it comes out, I’m introduced to a whole new way of eating. Everything comes on a huge plate, which it itself covered by a wide, flat, tortilla/pancake stepchild. It has a real name, I’m sure, but I’d rather just call it a pantilla. All our entrees are served on this pantilla, and to eat, you tear off a corner of the pantilla and pinch up food with it. It is the most informal and personal way of eating I’ve ever experienced, and if I was in charge, we’d eat like this every day. And the food itself made me feel bad for real Ethiopians and Eitreans, who I know for damn sure aren’t eating anything close to this delicious. Easily one of the best meals of my life, so thank you Devon and Howard both.

From dinner, we meander downtown to watch Slumdog Millionaire, which for the people who haven’t seen it, is A.M.A.Z.I.N.G. Seriously, go see it, and you’ll remember what a movie is supposed to do to its viewers. Between the culture, the juxtaposition of poverty and wealth, crime and virtue, and the mix of good and evil, the movie is just a pleasure in every sense of the word. Sure made me feel bad for watching the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still without gagging, I’ll tell you that. We had to get up at some unholy hour the next morning, so after the movie, we walk back home – 8 miles fly by when you’re in love with the world around you – and go to bed.


Across UN Plaza, 8am

Across UN Plaza, 8am

TUESDAY: Inauguration Day! I’ve never been happier to be waking up before 6 am in my entire life then I am today. Finally, a man who was never fit to be chief executive of his own asshole will be forced to stop deep dicking our nation and just be another moron private citizen instead. On a more positive note, I’m really excited that Barack Obama, a man I actively campaigned for, gave money to, and promoted as best I could, is going to be elected. He’s not perfect, by any means, but he’s smart, and articulate, and he LISTENS TO PEOPLE WHO DON’T AGREE WITH HIM. The combination of Bush being evicted and Obama being inaugurated got me up and at ’em at 5:45, despite the drinking, driving, (not together) and cold.

Howard and I drove down to U.N. Plaza in front of city hall by 6:30, and it was bitter cold. Despite this, there were already an easy 100 people there, setting up chairs, taking their places in front of the Jumbotron. We tossed our donation of socks and boxers into a container and took up places standing around aimlessly. A disheveled looking man came up next to me and asked if I wanted anything from the liquor store, “you know, champagne or something man.” I told him I loved the dedication but that I was penniless, and he wandered off. Half-true; this was shaping up to be my ultimate budget vacation, but I really couldn’t do bubbly at 6:45. What I could do is Coffee, and Howard and I headed to the Blue Dolphin, a little hole in the wall that my phone found. I had the best cappuccino of my life, served out of a roll-up door garage in an alleyway. Did I mention how much I love San Francisco?

We walked back to U.N. Plaza a little after 7:30, and by now the crowd as beginning to turn out. The hundred diehards had been joined by perhaps 300 others, and the Jumbotron broadcast was showing something inane while Andrew Card gave the Bush Administration a final deepthroating. There was a poster set up off to one side inviting people to write their aspirations for the Obama years, and I write “Dear Mr. President, try not to start any more wars, and end the corporate chokehold on American democracy, and you’ll go down as one of our greatest presidents” right in the middle and sign it. I wish I was stupid enough to believe it would happen, but hey, hope is in the air, and at least for today, I’m feeling the Obama fever.

The real festivities aren’t until 9 but around 8 the broadcasters stop wanking off and actually show crowd shots and the opening speakers. I find an open spot near my uncle, and watch Rick Warren and Aretha Franklin and all the rest do their thing. The crowd is really digging now, and it stretches across the plaza. Every shot of Obama or his family spurs loud cheers, while Cheney and Bush are roundly heckled. I spot dancing, smell weed, and everyone I look at is smiling and laughing. I’ve been in a lot of crowds, but never one this joyous or well-behaved. I got the feeling that people were just happy to have a leader they could trust, a man they could look up, and hold us as a standard. Maybe I’m just projecting, but President Bush is an embarrassment to our nation, and knowing that he was only minutes away from not being our President made the crowd giddy with anticipation.

Finally, 9am, zero hour. Twitter lights up, I get a few dozen texts, and I watch live in a crowd of instant friends our new president fuck up the oath of office. I love it – you know you would do the same in Obama’s place! There must be half the world listening and watching, and even a cool cat like Obama feels the pressure – although to be fair, Justice Roberts messed up the words too. That said, I love dada, and the random twist of the dry oath made me smile. The crowd in San Francisco loves it, every word. Right as Obama finishes, there’s a wild cry, a cheer of relief and excitement and longing and love. We’ve all been waiting for this for so long that to finally see it drives a lot of people to tears.

One moment I’ll never forget occurs right after Obama finishes the Oath of Office. Howard and I have been standing next to a young (mid-30s) black couple, whom I noticed mainly because the husband was very funny in his shouted barbs toward Bush, Cheney, Rick Warren and co. As the crowd is erupting in cheers, he turns to me and grabs me in a spontaneous bear hug, tears on his cheeks. “Finally my brother!” He yells, “Finally we’ve done it!” I laugh and hoot and hug him back, and for a moment we’re the best of friends. Then we release, and he turns to hug his wife. They vanish into the crowd a moment later, and Howard and I do a goofy little dance before embracing. The connection I felt with that man, whom I’ll never meet again in my life, was one of profound brotherhood, perhaps love even. We just shared a supreme joy, then parted ways forever. It was one hell of a moment.

After Obama’s inaugural address and Rev. Lowery’s Benediction, (let the red man get ahead, man!) Howard and I drive to his work. He has a beautiful office on Fort Mason, on the north edge of the city, but its too pretty out to stay there for long, so after I meet his coworkers, I need to get out on the town. Since he had to work the rest of the day, I found a transit map in a nearby hostel and took off to see what I could do to kill time until the inaugural balls that evening.

Wandering the city is amazing. From Fort Mason, I walk East, run to catch the 47 bus toward Market, and transfer to the F train toward the Embarcadero. I figure I’ll watch some skaters for a bit, since I’m short on cash, and I might be able to find some tourists to tag along with. Riding the cable car, I look out the left side and see that someone has changed all the signs on Bush street to read “Obama.” Love it! I pull the cord, hop out a stop after Bush, and hoof it back just in time to see a street crew pulling the signs down. I found out later that they had been there since the early morning, and that the city crews had left them up in honor of the inauguration. It was in the general feeling of the day, and I snapped a few shots of Obama street, and the “End Bush, Start Obama” sign posted at the end of the street before moving on.

Having no real goal, I wandered toward Chinatown, slipping through alleys, looking at graffiti and writing on the walls. Eventually I made it into Chinatown, and spent a few bucks on post cards and a box of dragon snaps to scare tourists. I threw 2 at a little kid who loved them so much that I just gave him the whole box. What can I say? I’m a sucker for kids. I think I built up some good karma from that one, as just one street later a young girl handed me a 20% off “Inaugurating Day” coupon at a local restaurant, plus free wontons and ice cream. Like I said, the whole town was partying.

After a delicious and cheap meal at a restaurant I never did figure out the name of, I found Jack Kerouac street (more of an alley) and the Beat Museum, but it was closed, and I ended up wandering northeast. I really liked this part of my day, because I managed to get completely off the beaten path, and just wandered neighborhoods in North Beach. I climbed some hills, found a few old cars, a stray cat that stayed just out of reach, and rested a bit on a hill overlooking the East Bay and the touristy parts of town. At one point, I scared the hell out of some lady, simply because I was deep in my own head and was following her too closely. (Had to apologize for that one!) With all the panic and activity and bustle of my life lately, it was perfect to get out of my world and just wander.

Eventually, I found myself climbing Telegraph Hill to Coit Tower. I’ve been there once before, with family, but I really don’t remember much about it except that I wanted to go back to hitting golf balls into the bay. This time, I figured I could go to the top and take pictures, which was a great plan until I found that it cost $5, and I didn’t even have that. Instead, I sit outside on a wall and watch ships sail through the bay and scribble furiously in my journal. Nothing good, I just want to get thoughts on paper, along with some poetry. A pretty girl with a sad soul comes over and sits near me, and we strike up a conversation about how pretty this part of the city is. She’s open about everything except for herself, and when I ask her why she was so sad, she tells me it was none of my damn business,and leaves. I sit there alone for a while, then decide it really is none of my business, and get over her. She was beautiful though, and I hope she finds happiness somehow.

Leaving Coit Tower, I head west down Lombard toward something else. I’ve never really been in this part of town before, so it’s a relief when I run into the 10 bus headed East. Any port in a storm, and I take the 10 south of Market, almost to the airport. I hope off the 10 in the middle of nowhere, and just walk. I have no idea where I am, don’t care, and spend the next hour ignoring my map and just wandering North. It sounds weird and almost like punishment, but I live for this – being a stranger, invisible in a world too busy to notice me, is something I need to do from time to time.

If San Francisco has one glaring weakness, it is a lack of the natural world, and by mid-afternoon, I’m craving some ground cover that isn’t dirty or hard. I end up sitting in the Yerba Buena Gardens, shoeless in the grass, writing postcards and listening to Salsa music on my phone. I’m still giddy, even after walking all day, just because of the energy the city is projecting today. Everyone is happy, friendly, and helpful – I honestly didn’t meet an angry person all day. I think everyone was just glad to be out from under the reign of President Bush. Sitting in the gardens, I watch random acts of kindness around me: strangers joking and talking, people going out of the way to help each other. I just wish that this attitude would last, instead of burning out in a couple days when Obama breaks our hearts.

Howard calls me around 4 – He’s finishing up at work, and wants me to me him at Fort Mason at 4:45. I hang up, notice that my phone battery is next to dead, and hoof it to Market. From there I catch the F train (2nd time in a day) down toward the Embarcadero, spending my last $1.50 in the process. I ride to the far end of the line, doing some people-watching and checking out girls as I go. I hop out an exit before the turnaround at Jones because I see a sign advertising “Free Art” and I want a goofy gift for my aunt and uncle. After picking out a little piece of the city, I hoof it west along the shore, going barefoot and walking in the sand to rest my feet. All across the beach are written messages, conversations, hopes, dreams. The city’s good moods lay spread across the sands, and I added my own (“Peace now!”) before moving on. I jump a fence, jog across an idle construction site, and pop back out right on Van Ness where I began. Thus ended my day of exploration, and thus began my greater adventures of that night.

Kerouac "Street" was a disappointment.

Kerouac "Street" was a disappointment.

4:45 right on the money, (not bad for a guy perpetually late) I walk back up to my uncle’s building on Fort Mason. I try to call him to get into the building, realize that my phone is completely dead, but he sees me through the window and lets me in anyway. Howard asks me what I did in the city, I give him the rough account, and then drink capri suns and stare out the window while he makes a few last-minute phone calls. My feet hurt and I’m broke, but I’m deliriously happy, possibly from the dehydration. After he’s done, we lock up and get ready for our inauguration ball across the bay.

We end up leaving a bit later then we had planned, so instead of heading home to change, we drive across the Golden Gate to Fort Baker, a base I had no idea even existed until then. It’s a pretty cool place, hidden just east of and below the bridge. The base is decommissioned, but the officer’s club is used as a bar for special events, and Howard and his coworkers have enough play with the Park Service to get it opened for the night. There’s a little turn off just after the bridge, and the road meanders down and around until it opens up onto a run-down little harbor, with a few 40’s looking buildings and warehouses. Fort Baker is not much to look at, but this trip seemed determined to teach me that looks can be deceiving.

The plan, as Howard told me while we were unloading his car, was for a few dozen people to get together, watch the inaugural speeches, talk about our hopes and dreams for the Obama administration, and knock a few back. Later in the night a band, the ‘Blues Disaster” would blow a few tunes, and people might dance. Truthfully, it didn’t sound all that amazing to me – my uncle and his friends are easily 30 years older than me, and I figured I would be out of place and under-dressed at a high-brow party. How very wrong I was.

Howard and I ended up being the first people to arrive aside from the bartender, Leo. We clear out a dance floor, set up chips and munchies, decorate, and pop open a few brews. A few more coworkers show up, people set up a projector, and Leo and I haul some kegs up from the basement. The building is fantastic – a bar upstairs, with a studio and warehouse below. I go exploring in the warehouse and find 70 years of debris and history: piles of old machines, tools older then my parents, and everything needed to run an old navy outpost 2 generations ago. It could have been a museum, and instead Leo got to run the bar so long as he made sure nobody stole things or wrecked the place up. I tell Leo how lucky he is to run the place, and he just laughs and agrees.

Carrying the kegs upstairs is thirsty work, and so Leo and I drink pints of Blue Moon while we watch the Park Service folks arrive and set up their decorations. I hang streamers and carry in speakers for the band and generally work my ass off, but I’m full of nervous energy and high spirits and the movement feels right. I overhear Howard and someone talking, and his lady-friend (not like that) is saying that the party has exploded from a few dozen people to a few hundred.

Just then Leo’s other bartender, Kristin, shows up, and she tells Leo that her friend isn’t going to be able to come in and bus tables for the night. Leo’s none to happy, and they argue for a while about how they’re going to avoid running out of cups during the party, which seems to be getting wilder by the minute. I watch bemusedly and sip my beer, until finally Leo turns to me and asks if I’m down to bus tables for free drinks. I’m broke beyond a joke, so I agree wholeheartedly, and the deal is struck – cleaning tables in exchange for everything I can drink – and what a dangerous deal it is.

The party itself kicks off probably around 7, and people start pouring in. The initial theme of celebrating Obama gets abandoned like a prom-night baby, and the whole place disintegrates into a wild dance party. No one minds. The band is fantastic – they’re playing jazz, rock, blues, funk, reggae, covering anything you’d want to dance to. Howard strands me at the ticket table and gets down on the dance floor; I’m laughing too hard to be mad. Hes pretty good though! People are paying 3-4 times the donation asked, and they keep coming. I lost count about 120, but I never started counting at an empty building. I keep jumping off to clear tables, stealing drinks people haven’t finished, leaping over chairs, cutting through the dancers in a wild effort to keep up with the drinkers. Leo and Kristen are raking in money hand over fist, moving with a frantic efficiency that just barely keeps the place hydrated. People are drinking to get fucked up – no other way to put it. I’m watching 60 year olds down drinks like it’s Mardi Gras, and people older then my parents take 2, 3 shots straight off. The party is phenomenal, one of those rare occurrences where everyone is just trying to shake off bad memories and celebrate a truly great day.

I’m another 6 pints of Blue Moon deep when Howard finally relieves me at the front door. He ribs me to go dance, and I really don’t need much prompting – I’m out on the floor dancing with women twice my age, having a blast, high and happy. I keep dancing until Leo yells at me that he’s out of glasses, and then Kristen and I run around frantic to grab armfuls of cups and glasses and clear tables. The party keeps growing, and the dance floor keeps gobbling up more of the room. People are pushing tables toward the walls, old couples are dirty dancing, and I’m running and bouncing through the middle of it all, looking for girls anywhere near my age.

An aside here: women under 30 or so are by and large no fun when it comes to dancing. Older women love to dance, and will enthusiastically take you up on any offer, but the younger ones are either too shy or too haughty to accept. I really dig partner dancing, and I can teach ANYONE to dance if they’re willing, but I asked every young girl I could find to dance, and got turned down by all of them. I really don’t care – I just got out on the floor with the older women and had a blast, but it was downright depressing to see every girl I had a chance with sitting at a table watching bemused while the rest of us had a great time.

After a few hours, I end up outside on the balcony with a beautiful Japanese woman only a couple years my senior, talking world travel and the Peace Corps and smoking Camel lights. She’s digging my Obama shirt and hair, and I’m digging her eyes and her laugh. We click in a big way, or at least drunk me thought so. Just when it starts getting good, one of the Park Service guys comes up to me and asks me to help carry some shit down to the cars, and so I promise the girl I’ll be back as fast as I can. I am, but she’s gone, never to be seen again. I smoked those Camels for nothing!

Kicking myself, I wander back inside, do the rounds, clear some tables, drink another beer, and work my way back to the floor. By this point, the dancers are clearing out a bit just from fatigue and heat and I head straight to the middle of the floor and just start feeling the beat. It’s not something I’m particularly good at, but so long as I don’t think about how stupid I must look, I can usually pull off cute-in-a-dorky-sort-of-way. Within a couple minutes I luck out big time, and this gorgeous blonde dancing nearby looks over at me and bursts out laughing. I pull a couple moves, she kinda throws em back, and for the first time all night, I’m dancing with someone who couldn’t be my mother. At the end of a song, I grab her by the hands, pull her in close, and ask her if she’d like to really dance.

“What do you mean?” She asks a fair question.

“I can teach you to ballroom dance if you’re willing to follow.”

:I’ve always wanted to learn.” she smiles at me, and I know I’m in for something special.

I lead her through a country 2-step, something easy to learn, and a confidence-builder. She picks up on it fast, and within a few minutes we’re spinning around the room, laughing and narrowly dodging the few other dancers left. We foxtrot, run through the basics of swing, and also rumba. She’s great at following, and that’s really all you need if the guy can lead. The party is definitely dying down by now, and after a few more dances, the floor is pretty much clear aside from us. I catch Leo giving me a thumbs up over her shoulder, and I couldn’t agree more. This is pretty much exactly what I was after. The band plays their last song, we do a slow waltz, and when the music dies we keep dancing to our own beat as the party falls apart.

“So what now?” Her question surprises me – I was just thinking that it was a shame I had nowhere else for us to go, and she’s caught me off guard.

“I don’t know, really. I’m here visiting, so I don’t know where else we can go.”

“If you want to keep dancing, I know there’s an inaugural ball up in Marin. We could go crash that.”

“With you, I’d go anywhere.” It sounded less completely corny in person, I promise.

We bail as soon as we can say our goodbyes – or really, as soon as I can; I notice she really doesn’t know anyone there. I say goodbye to Leo and thank him for the job, he tells me to wrap it up, and I find Howard near the door, bidding the guests farewell.

“Howard, we’re going to head up to another ball in Marin. I’ll call you if I need a ride or anything.”

“Alright,” he says, “you kids are crazy – I’m about ready to hit the sack, and you’re going out to dance the night away.” He laughs, “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”

I zing back, “what does that leave out?” and we step out laughing into the cold damp night.

Walking toward the parking lot, I notice my dance partner is shaking with silent laughter. I ask her what the joke is, and she says “that guy, Howard, he called us ‘you kids.’” I must have looked clueless, because she keeps laughing and asks, “how old do you think I am?” I guess 28, and she almost falls apart giggling. “Sweetheart,” she gasps between fits of laughter, “I’m 42.”

“Really?” I’m floored.

“Really.”

“Well, I never would have guessed it.” And we keep on walking to her car.

Passenger seat, 90’s Volvo – We’re driving north into the unknown, or at least, into somewhere I haven’t the foggiest, a woman 20 years older then me driving, and me coming off a whole lot of drunk beside her. I can’t keep myself from staring; she’s gorgeous, and I still haven’t reconciled her age with her looks. However, I’m not a damned fool, so we talk about dancing and politics and the human spirit. She turns out to be one of those super new-agey chicks you find floating around the bay area, deep into energy and acupuncture and chi and all of the rest. I can’t quite believe what is going on around me, and I distinctly remember my subconscious bubbling up at one point and asking me “is this real life?” Still, we’ve gone this far and I’m not turning back, so onward we speed into the night.

To this day I have no idea where we drove, but a bit after midnight we end up at some hotel, resort, ballroom, something on a hill overlooking the city. We park her car and walk past rows of BMWs, Mercedes, and a few valets far better dressed then myself. Walking inside, our path is blocked by a very large bouncer, who, after a moment to consider a pair of disheveled dancers in jeans, lets us in at no cost. I tell him he won’t regret it, and we walk in to the dance party.

Inside, its all tuxedos and evening gowns and fancy coats and jewelry. I’m wearing an Obama T so worn out you can barely read it, shoes with holes, and jeans I’ve worn since San Diego. My dance partner is better by half, (at least she’s in a dress) but together we’re the worst-dressed pair in there: people actually stare and step back as we move into the room. We can’t stop laughing, and I drag her into the middle of the floor, shouting salsa steps over the hip-hop beats as we push into the mass of bodies.

Once there, we get down; salsa, west coast swing, rumba, two-step. I can’t believe how well this woman can follow! She’s picking up everything I’m laying down, and we’re lighting up the floor. Not meaning to brag, but you know you’re dancing well when people step back from what they’re doing to watch you. Either that or we stepped on too many toes and feet and legs and pissed everyone off! We spin and twirl and twist and flirt, dancing dirtier then I’ve ever dreamed with a woman twice my age. After an hour or so, we stumble off the floor and grab a couple waters, gasping for air and talking about how they ought to play something we could tango to. Too hot inside, can’t hardly think, so we make our way out onto the balcony.

Outside the view is gorgeous. The balcony overlooks all of the bay – the glittering lights of San Francisco, the bridges illuminated in twinkling yellow and white. Overhead, the heavens stretch eternal, and I say that to her as we lean out over the balcony. She laughs, tells me I’m going to be heartbroken my whole life if I don’t stop being such a damned romantic. “Love who you are, not who you would like to be,” I say, ripping off the Lawrence Arms as I slip an arm around her. She shrugs me off, gives me a knowing smile, and asks me to teach her how to tango. I turn wordlessly, grab her in the dance position, and let myself slide into the rhythm of the dance. I don’t know why or how, but I’ve lost this one, and the night just doesn’t feel the same after that.

After we dance a while on the balcony, she asks me if I’m ready to leave. I’m coming down off the drinks and the dancing, and my dogs are dragging; I’m happy to leave. We make our exit through the thinning crowd of fancy suits and gowns and walk out into the chill of night. She offers me her couch; I accept readily – there’s no real alternative. Dead phone, flat broke, far from home, and alone. We drive home talking about spirituality and faith, and the crime that is religion corrupting the human spirit. I doubt we made much sense, but we talked in that vein, excited, intellectual, honest, like good friends but not lovers, all the way to her house. We stumble in, she tosses me a few blankets, and I pass out dreamless on the couch. Thus ends my first fling with an older woman, wildly successful in every way except in bed.

WEDNESDAY: Early Wednesday morning I wake up smelly, sticky, and sore, not to mention thirsty as all hell. My lips are sticking together, so I stumble into the kitchen looking for a drink. Once again, I thank whatever instinct I have that wakes me up early in the morning after drinking just in time to get water. I can’t even count how many hangovers I’ve dodged this way. After a couple glasses of tap water, I wrap myself back up on the couch and snooze and stare at the crazy patterns on her ceiling, while I wait for her to wake up.

A few hours later, she’s awake and in the kitchen. I make a show of getting up, stretching, wasting time while I think of what the hell I’m going to say to this woman. As it turns out, she and I get along fine, laughing about the insanity of the previous night. She offers me a ride into the city, I happily accept, and so after I wash up a bit in the bathroom, I bum a ride back home. Somewhere along the way, between stories and comparing families, I look at her and say something I know to be true. “You’re in love with love, aren’t you?” That kills it. She looks at me, quiet, with something deep in her eye telling me I’ve cut too deep this time. She looks out the window, and I drop my gaze. She never answers, and we drive across the bridge and into the city in silence.

Mercifully I have to give her directions soon, and the rest of our ride is spent in calling out turns and trying to orient myself around town. “I hate this place,” she tells me. “When I moved here, I used to love it, but I realized that the city has no soul, no heart. It’s all noise and crowds.” I tell her I love to come visit, and she smiles and tells me that’s because I’m young, and the world hasn’t beaten me up yet. Finally we get to my uncle’s house, and I thank her for the ride. I kiss her on the cheek, tell her to keep dancing, and she wishes me good luck in the Peace Corps. We run through a few minutes of small talk banter to avoid saying the obvious “goodbye forever” that we ought to. Getting out of her car, I briefly hesitate, thinking I ought to ask her her name before we’re separated by eternity.

“Fuck it” I think, “it makes the story better.” I slam the door closed and don’t look back as she drives away out of my life forever.

I turned around from taking this picture and found a book in the gutter.

I turned around from taking this picture and found a book in the gutter.

After a shower and shave, the rest of Wednesday sneaks by unquestioned. I call Howard to tell him I’m alive, nap a bit, go for a walk, and spend most of the day lounging and reading a book I found in the gutter near Castro and 29th. Mid-afternoon my aunt Wendy calls me to get a ride home from the airport: she’s home from DC, where she was for the inauguration. I go to pick her up, and we swap stories until Howard gets home. After he’s back from work, we walk to an Indian Restaurant they’re in love with (for good reason!) and gorge ourselves on good food and good company. It’s my last night in the city, and I’m sad to have to leave – I know this is the last time I will be seeing my relatives for several years. However, the times we have had in this city, are a perfect last hurrah, and we part happily, with love in our hearts, and fond memories to carry us through until next we meet.

Once we’ve parted ways, and I’ve said my farewell to the city, I chart a course south back to San Jose. I’ll hit Jake’s place again tonight, on my way down to San Luis, and Santa Barbara beyond. Balling down the 280, I make fantastic time despite the rain; it’s nice that people in northern California don’t freak out whenever the sky gods take a leak. Just before I hit San Jose the storm completely opens up, and it suits me just fine. I ease Sally into town, and before long I’m pulling into the same parking spot I left 2 days before. I dodge inside with my bags, calling Jake as I do, and end up soaked to the skin by the time I’ve ran the half block to Jake’s apartment.

Turns out he’s not even home, so I sit outside dripping until the neighbors wander by. I must have looked in sad enough shape, because they stopped to ask me if I needed somewhere to stay. I waved them off, and after a while Jake came home with some gifts from a friend of his. The neighbors reappear, and we play old records and tell stories and joke into the night. The beer flows, I get told more guys ought to be like me for some reason I forget, and I end up sleeping on Jake’s other couch, thus keeping my streak of “never waking up in the same place twice” alive another daydiary entry

Looking out Jake's window, aka spying on the world.

Looking out Jake's window, aka spying on the world.

THURSDAY: Thursday I spent a lot of time writing – this story mostly, in notebook form – staring out the window, people-watching, smoking, wasting time. I take a walk around Jake’s neighborhood, wander into a thrift store, remember I’m flat broke, and mosey on home. Jake is off work around 3:30, so we take off for Santa Barbara once he’s packed and we’ve eaten. On the way out the door we grab a bunch of CDs, and ride down the 101 singing and talking about the screen play we’re writing together.

In SLO we stop to see my brother since my whole family is worried about him – he’s been depressive and quiet every time I’ve seen him lately, and I get the feeling he’s in a low point of his life. We show up Kenny’s house after dark and go out for sushi at some crazy-overpriced little joint. The food is great, but I end up paying a cool $80 bucks for the meal, everything I’ve saved for the trip and then some. Time to tighten my belt and live off a liquid diet for a while. Still, it’s great seeing my brother, and being a part of his life again. Once I leave for the Peace Corps, it’s the moments like this that I’ll miss.

After dinner I call my friend Lea to see what she’s up to, and since she’s one of those studious types, it turns out that she’s studying in the library. Jake, Kenny, and I head over to the Cal Poly library to bug her, and end up pissing off pretty much everyone in the building. None of us are the quiet or discrete type, so we end up racing up the stairs to the top floor, talking too loud, running through the stacks, and just being a nuisance. I don’t get to talk to Lea for long, but its good to see her, and I could see she felt the same. After sitting around joking and catching up for a bit, we try to find a way onto the roof, and once that fails (we were just sane enough not to open the “alarm will sound” door to get to the roof access. One last race down 5 floors, some yelling and swearing, and we’re off again. Jake and I drop off Kenny at his house, say our goodbyes, and keep on driving.

We’re far behind schedule, so instead of going on barhopping with some friends once we arrive in Santa Barbara, we’re mercifully allowed to not spend shitloads of money on watery drinks in loud nightclubs. Nothing against bars in general, but Santa Barbara’s aren’t worth their weight in drunk slutty STI-carrying coeds. We head over to Devon’s house, drink a few beers, watch TV, and catch up like the old friends we are. It’s more my scene anyhow. Jake calls the bed, so I end up sleeping on the slanted floor of Devon’s crazy old Victorian house. The floor is cold and hard, but after a day driving and a lifetime of sleeping where life takes me, I’m out like a light.

Jake in the Costume Shop. Why did they kick us out?

Jake in the Costume Shop. Why did they kick us out?

FRIDAY: Everyone starts coming out of the woodwork on Friday. Jake and I take the day slow since we’re broke, and spend a lot of time watching TV and waiting for it to stop raining so we can walk downtown to get food. Neither of us packed worthwhile cold-weather gear, so we’re pretty much trapped the entire day. We spend our time talking, brainstorming for the screenplay we’ve been writing together, smoking, and watching Curb Your Enthusiasm.

I really like Devon’s house, because he inherited most of the furniture and decorations from our shared house in Santa Barbara. Being there feels like home, since I’m surrounded by my favorite things. Plus, his house is weird and poorly designed and leaning all sorts of directions – my sort of place. The bathroom and bedroom are right next to each other, yet you have to walk through every room in the house in order to go from one to the other. Both the kitchen and bathroom slant significantly to the east. The floors creak, it’s barely insulated, and it’s dark in most of the rooms. I love it because the place just stinks of character; it’s almost like the house itself is your roommate.

Around noon the rain dies long enough for Jake and I to get lunch and go walking downtown looking for masquerade masks. We strike out on the masks, but the sandwiches and pretty girls make it hard to be disappointed. Santa Barbara has a lot of strikes against her, but the beautiful people are out in force here. We eventually have to go driving to a real costume shop to find masks, but the payoff is this fantastic little shop – ornate costumes, masks of all variety, all for a pricetag I can’t imagine paying in this life. Still, Jake and I have a blast trying on masks, taking pictures, goofing around. That is, until the employees on duty got involved.

Two older women ran the store, and they were not amused by Jake and my antics. Several times while we were there one or the other came over and yelled at us for trying on the costumes, or taking pictures, or touching things, or breathing. Pretty much everything we did was wrong, but we were just trying to have fun! You can’t take creative minds, stuff us into a room full of inspiration, and then expect us not to touch anything. Between the crotchety women and the price tags, that place sucked the life out of us, and we left with a handful of dollar masks and our tails between our legs.

Back at Devon’s house, some of our other friends are arriving. Rad and Katie, not a married couple but hardly single, show up right about the time we get back, and Devon comes home from work smelling of coffee and cigarettes. He showers, the rest of us get comfortable, and soon enough Chad, his girlfriend Muey, and their friend Jamie arrive. Instantly the house is packed – 4 rooms and no doors works just fine for Devon alone or perhaps a guest, but the 3 of us was pushing it, and 8 makes the house feel stuffy and overcrowded. The girls get down to getting pretty, Devon comes out of the shower to a standing-room-only crowd, and we all start the ritual that is getting ready to get hammered.

Chad, Rad, Katie, and Muey (Pronounced May, call her Mooey and die) had made cardboard and photo-paper masks of each other, and the results were hilarious. They turned anyone into a creepy, empty-eyed, soulless version of one of my good friends, and who wouldn’t want that? We amused ourselves taking pictures and catching up, all while dodging between and around and over each other like an unimpressive circus act. I wouldn’t pay to see it, but the choreography was stellar. Thankfully, Jake, Devon, Rad, Chad, and myself made up 5/7 of our old Santa Barbara house, and the close quarters and lack of privacy have never bothered us. I don’t know what the girls thought of it, but presumably they didn’t care, or they would never have been hanging out with us in the first place!

Anyway, to cut this story to the interesting bits, we showed up to the party later in the evening and got down to the drinking. The masquerade was at the girls’ house (partner to our late, great boys’ house) and we all fell right into our old routines and roles. It’s both funny and sad how much we all play the same characters when the whole gang gets together. Kelly goes back to being a lush, drinking red cups of vodka and forgetting how to speak. RAD gets hammered and passes out on something, but doesn’t get written on or fucked with because he’s so well-loved. Lauren and Rachel are stars, somehow playing perfect hostesses while drinking themselves blind on cheap wine and “princess punch.” Chris and Trav, poor guys, came to the group of friends late, and they mostly skirt the party, smoking cigarettes, getting stupid, but never quite being “in” in the same way as some of the rest of us.

My role in the group is one I’ve never really liked. I play this wallflower guy who gets overly drunk, doesn’t know when he’s being overly creepy or weird, and who eventually bails on the partying to go do his own thing. Of course I could just change this, but this being my last party with this same group, I’m so desperate to taste the old feelings and emotions that I dive right in. By 11 I’m gone – between drink and tea I can barely feel feelings. Nobody even notices when I walk out the front door and wander the neighborhood. I end up walking a long while in the cold, kicking a can through empty neighborhoods. I don’t know why I’m in such a funk. By all rights I should be happy; surrounded by friends and pretty women, on vacation, at another party. However, I just can’t help thinking that this is all pointless, that it doesn’t matter what I do anymore, or who I meet, because I’m leaving soon enough and won’t see anyone again. It’s an awful world view, but I’ve been slipping into it more and more lately. I suspect it will get worse before I leave.

After a long circuit of the block, in a dark mood and a darker night, I walk back to the house drunk tired and still depressed. Worse, as the booze starts to wane off, I’m exhausted and spinning. I elect to spend the night in my car rather then go back inside, where I can hear my happy friends singing and laughing. I’m just too far down for them right now, and realizing that is perhaps the most painful part of this whole fucked-up party. I climb in the passenger seat, kick it back, and pass out staring at my torn up roof, tracing the old scars from moving, from drunk friends and good times; a visceral reminder of how much I once shared with these people I’m now leaving behind to go take another path, to adventure, self-discovery, and who knows what else. What sort of asshole ditches his friends to go live in Honduras?

About two am, maybe, I’m awoken by my concerned friends knocking on my windows. They’d come out looking for me after I hadn’t returned, and after they’d dealt with Kelly’s drunken self. I’m in no shape to get up at this point, drunk, half-asleep, depressed as all hell, and while I’m touched by their caring, I just can’t drag myself up and into the house. It takes a good while, some hitting, some swearing, and finally some good old-fashioned shaking, to get me moving. The shaking was a low blow for sure, but it does the trick as it makes me want to hurl, which I proceed to do straight into the gutter. Almost hit Jenn too, if my browned-out memory serves me. Luckily for me and her both, she’s a good sport and used to this sort of thing, and dodges my review of the night’s party. Someone says “Fuck man!” which is about what I was thinking as the bile and booze and I went our separate ways.

After I finished up, we made our way back inside, I took some good-natured ribbing, and found Kel mostly naked and mostly passed out in the main room. The party was gone, my friends having taken a cab back to Devon’s or made their ways back to various homes in Santa Barbara. All we had left were the girls, their guests, mom, and Kel and I, the ones too drunk to leave. He and I laugh at our stupidity and predicament, gladly accept blankets, and pass the fuck out for the rest of that too-short night. Weird scene, to be sure. Still, every trip has it’s dark side, and for me this night was most definitely it. I felt it pass, the darkness, and as I lay there half-awake as Kel sucked the oxygen out of the room (or tried his hardest to) I knew that things would get better just as soon as the room stopped taking sudden dives to my right every few seconds. Foot on the floor, hand on the wall, and it’s time for some shuteye.

"Chad" and "Muey" Arrive at the party.

"Chad" and "Muey" Arrive at the party.

SATURDAY: I’ll tell you this – despite a lifetime of experience sleeping and waking up on strange couches, floors, futons, hammocks, and the like, there is always something jarring and difficult about slipping back into consciousness dehydrated, hungover, and tasting vomit. Doubly so when there’s something, like a best friend’s snoring, that reminds you of a distant, near-forgotten part of your life. Lying there, eyes half-open and mind as well, I was thrown back into the my early college years when Kel and I were roommates and his snoring-choking-sucking routine was my lullaby every night, and my rooster every morning. It took a few minutes to pull myself out of that pleasant fantasy, and when I did I was unhappy immediately. The taste of last night’s booze, the smell of bile and sweaty drunk, and the angry pounding in my temples met me at the starting line this morning, and they weren’t going to let me get away easily.

A few hours, rips, and cups of water later, I’m feeling adventurous enough to wake Kel up, so he can do a lot of the same. The girls are stirring, and we put the front room back in order (sort of) as everyone prepares for the second half of our family tradition, the hung-over group breakfast and storytelling session at Cody’s, a little place across the street. In the old days, when everyone drank until they passed out, it was our best option to get edible food without anyone having to drive or be sober. Now, despite having much better choices available to us (Alfie’s what?) we still end up at Cody’s a lot, scarfing down omelets and coffee, bloody marys and country-fried steak if you’re Jake or Devon.

Remember how I said I was broke? Still relevant now, and a search of my pockets turns up $4 and change. Worse, my emergency cash, the “if I have to flee town” money, is in my car, along with all the change I’ve saved up over the years. I’m straight broke, so I do what every good American has been doing for the last couple years – ordered what I wanted, not what I could afford. Orange juice, coffee, fruit, sourdough toast, and 2 eggs over-hard with country-fried potatoes. The waitress takes our order, all 22 people, and I feel like a shithead until the food comes. Well, not that bad – I was still hung over and hungry, and that makes me mean.

After fooding and talking, reminiscing and drinking, the routine is done. The magic fades, the spell breaks, and people start to go their separate ways. Chad has to make it back home, so he and Muey say their goodbyes almost immediately. Brandi and her friends head downtown, the girls have work and homework, and the group collapses back into routines, obligations, and “real life.” I stiff the restaurant for my food, leave my $4 as a tip, and walk out feeling not even a little bad about it. The girl I would have felt bad about, but the restaurant has a few hundred of my dollars already; they can live without these 10. Saying goodbyes, I try to guilt Brandi, Lauren, Chris, Trav, and a few others into doing something that night – my last with them for 2 years – and head back to Devon’s to shower, shave, and lay low for a bit. The last week has been doing me in, and I take a much needed lie on Devon’s floor while waiting for Jake to shower.

More TV – something I shy away from at home, but it’s a good time filler when you’re recovering from a binge or 5. I can’t party like I used to for more then a few nights now; the old concept of partying all night, 5-7 days a week, for months is so beyond me right now. I have no idea how I used to pull it off. The best I can manage now is a few nights, a week maybe, then my body starts to fall apart on me and I feel something awful. I start to feel introspective, a death sentence when the trip is still on, and Devon, Jake, Rad and I make damn sure that can’t happen any more. We blast our brains out with something illegal, then sit around talking old times and past experiences. I’m supposed to leave by noon, but I don’t want to and besides by the time it rolls around I can’t drive legally. Using this flimsy excuse I decide to waste the rest of the day hanging out, reminiscing, visiting old hangouts, and by the time the late afternoon rolls around it’s decided that we’ll head to our old dive bar, play some pool, have a few beers, and I’ll leave tomorrow. Jake, Rad, and Katie leave to head up to Jake’s place, and so I say a heartfelt goodbye to Dean Moriarty and that’s that. Jake and I aren’t the sentimental type, but I felt awful watching him go and not knowing when we’d meet again.

So we do that thing I just described, and I get a lot of free drinks tossed my way, lose a few games of pool, and say all the goodbyes and meaningful things I couldn’t the day before. It’s a lot more my style then the bingefest the night before, and after a few hours we all split amiably, give last hugs, and I walk out of yet more of my friends’ lives. Looking back on it from this position a few months in the future, this was one of the hardest days of my life, and regardless of where my life goes from here, I’m proud to have had all of these people touch my world.

Devon and I head over to Brandi’s to hang out a bit, but she kicks us out early on so she can do something, which leaves Devon and myself lying in Sally the Saturn’s cockpit, too drunk to drive, with no way to get home, no way to move the car out of Brandi’s parking lot, and so we end up lying there listening to Minus the Bear for an hour or so and reminiscing. I don’t recall a lot of what we talked about, but I remember all the things I needed to say pouring out in a rush of word vomit. I was in shit shape, emotionally, physically, spiritually even.  After a while I drove very slowly and carefully the 2 blocks to Chris and Trav’s place, figuring that there was no way I’d make it all the way downtown, and knowing that we always had a spot on their couches.

The problem with this plan was that they were fast asleep and we didn’t want to wake them. The logical solution was thus to break in through their front window, open the door quietly, and crash out on their couches. The only solution really. As I remarked to Devon before passing out facedown, Chris and Trav are some of the only people who would be more upset by us waking them up at 2am then breaking into their house. After that, and a few minutes of Wall-E, I remember nothing else until morning.

SUNDAY: Sunday sucked. I’d overstayed my planned trip, still had no money, had to be home to work by midday, and was hung over like unholy hell. I stole a glass of OJ from the boys, left them a thank you note, and Devon and I drove to his place to shower, grab my stuff, and drop him off for work. I said goodbye to my surrogate big brother, gave him a bearhug, and drove out of his life, and my once-home, for the last time for a long time. I drove the whole way home with a lump in my throat, the same Minus the Bear album playing, unable to look in the mirror.

Made it home just before work, and walked into the swim store looking haggard, emotionally dead, and past the point of caring. Stepped seamlessly into my old “new” life, bit my lip, and kept my head down. I had done what I needed to do, said what I had to, and was left with more longing and answer-less questions then I’d ever had. I wish I could say that this trip was fun, but really the second half sapped all the life out of the first, and in the end all I could do was survive. I know better things are to come, but I never dreamed it would be so hard to leave this miserable existence behind. I guess we’ll just have to see were it turns out, but at least I know that if it ends up shitty I can always crash on a few floors and couches.

A few notes: I never slept in the same place twice. I never had sex. I did smoke a lot, drink a lot, and throw up on my shoes. I didn’t get to kiss Lea goodbye. I missed Kenny’s upcoming breakdown completely. Jake and I bonded like no-get-out. I wrote the last 2 days worth of bullshit on April 6, 2009 because it was too painful, so if it’s wrong chronologically or factually I’m sorry. Everything is as true as I can remember, so help me dog.

Peace Corps Diary #4

April 10, 2009

The Unusual Disclaimer:

None of this actually happened – I’m a filthy liar living in his parents’ basement in Bumfuck, Nowhere, and I have nothing better to do then make up stories about imaginary people, places, and things. Any resemblance to real activities, people, or places is simply an amazing coincidence that can only be attributed to a vengeful deity or the ravings of a drug-addled madman. Further, if you are a member of the Peace Corps, especially an administrator, by reading a single letter of this or any other of my communications you forfeit all rights to sue, discipline, hit, cluck disapprovingly at, or otherwise punish me, or any one of my imaginary friends. That is all.

Right then, moving on to the fun stuff. Hello friends, acquaintances, X’s mom and that whole world, Mrs. Petitte’s class, Jesus, and all the kids back home in Santa Barbara and San Diego. Welcome one and all to the latest ramble to escape my head over the past few weeks. It’s a good one, so lets buckle up for safety, right? Arms and legs outside the cart at all times, and please do feed the animals, because I sure don’t, and frankly it’s a miracle they’re still alive at this point. Check your baggage at the door, suspend your belief, and away we go!

Breaking The Rules in Choluteca:

I suppose I ought to start this entry off with the rest of the story of my volunteer visit to Juan in Choluteca. To recap, I’ve just traveled all day to the southern part of Honduras, eaten greasy chicken sandwiches at Wendy’s with the local volunteers, parted ways with my traveling companions, Shaniqua and Rose, and wandered back to Juan’s fortress-like apartment to watch CNN and eat Chinese food.

This brings us to Monday, the first official day of my volunteer visit. I woke up with a tremendous burst of adrenaline brought on by malaria-drug dreams and Juan walking past my bed right as I woke up out of them. I went straight from being shot at by 2 men who were chasing me through my head to having a stranger right in front of my eyes as they opened. Much like a cattle prod to the taint, this got me up and moving in about 2 ½ seconds, and set Juan to laughing. After Frosted Flakes (Zucaritas here) with milk out of a plastic bag for that classy factor, melon, and OJ, we set out on the town to pitch a water system Juan had designed to the local water NGO, Forcuentas. They’re a EU-funded group that has been kicking ass and taking names at funding and building water systems here in southern Honduras, and thanks to them we’ve made leaps and bounds in providing water to the aldeas (suburbs, but more rural) of most of the towns in the area.

After a cab ride for 15L each, (70 cents) and 10 blocks in a rattling, smoking old Datsun, we hit the Forcuentas office, and I get introduced to a whole host of people who I will never meet again, and whose names I forget about the time they hit my ears. I hate, loathe, despise this sort of meeting in any language mostly because every time I assume I’ll never meet people again and forget their names, I meet them a week later and spend a few awkward hours calling everyone by not-their-names, or an agonizing 10 minutes apologizing for not knowing anyone’s name, getting reintroduced, and looking like a douchenozzle. That said, I figured I’d be safe with the front desk staff.

Several minutes of small-talk and background info later, we’re told that the engineer will see us now, and we head upstairs to meet with him. Engineers and Doctors, really all professionals, are treated with deference and respect here on a level that Americans reserve for… actually we don’t respect anyone like Hondurans (Catrachos is what they call themselves) respect their professionals. If you’re in Honduras in any professional capacity, expect to be called “Ingeniero” instead of your name, have things brought to you if you even think about needing them, and to be generally treated very much like someone very special. As a Peace Corps technician, I get none of the same respect, but I happened to be with Juan, an engineer himself, so I leeched his prestige and got to sit down with the engineers and go over the system plans.

After some disputing of costs, adjustments to maps and information, and about 4 hours of conversation, we passed the finalized plans over to the engineer to review, and got a tentative promise to fund and break ground on the system. It was my first legitimate work for the Peace Corps, and it couldn’t have gone better. I was able to communicate well in Spanish, actually help improve the system and plans, and to comprehend what was going on around me and participate in the process. For a dumb gringo with 3 weeks of Honduran living under his belt, this was a really amazing experience. Compared to what a lot of my friends saw, did, and felt on their volunteer visits, I was fantastically lucky to have gone where I did and done actual work. I felt great leaving the office, congratulating Juan and waving Adios to the front desk women. Not even having to respond to “Adios Kevin!” with “Hasta Luego Señoras, muchas gracias para todos!” could bring me down. I really do have to work on remembering names though.

Next stop – Choluteca’s bustling outdoor market. Much like Mercado Zonal Belin in Teguz, it was dirty, noisy, potentially dangerous, full of strange smells, knockoff DVDs, meats of all sorts, little Jenga towers of toothpaste, racks of cellphones and fake Puma watches, and pretty much anything you could think of, save men’s shorts, which is a pity considering that we had come to buy precisely those. As consolation, we went to a little Honduran eatery in a rusted out storage shed, precisely the sort of place you expect to cause you to spew out both ends for a week after. We got baleadas, a sort of Honduran taco/burrito/something entirely not those first two things that taste amazing and are full of spices, meats, vegetables, and more joy then I can really describe here without getting vulgar. Actually, fuck it – to paraphrase Fry from Futurama, they were like sex, except I was having them. Plus, they cost next to nothing and didn’t make me poop or puke blood.

Re-energized, we set out again for soccer/running shorts, and proceeded to hit every major clothing store in this city of 100,000 with absolutely no luck. Aside from cargo shorts or swim trunks, nobody sold shorts, and nothing for under 350 lempira. ($12.50, but still expensive on a daily allowance of 57L!) Struck out, hot from the 100 degree humid ugliness that southern Honduras has the gall to call weather, and thoroughly confused as to where all the little Catrachos in their soccer shorts had bought the damn things, we walked back to Juan’s house to drown our sorrows in more CNN and the fruit I’d bought at MAXI Bodega, the local Walmart-owned clearinghouse. Plus, we had another meeting with a surveyor, who met us at the house. He actually told me my spanish was good as well, so I had to walk through doorways sideways the rest of the day to fit my ego through.

In the late afternoon we walked back to the center of town as the setting sun made the outdoors fractionally more tolerable (1/32nd) and the birds came out to squawk and shit on things. Every tree we walked past was a seething mass of cawing, crapping, attention-whoring little birds, whose only purpose seemed to be to serve as inattentive person traps, providing Juan and I amusement as we walked to dinner. We went to the first “Mexican restaurant” I’ve seen in Honduras, and it was actually really good, if nothing like actual Mexican food. We met up with Jose, the local health volunteer, and Miguel, his aspirante visitor. They told us about having been made to carry 300 pound water filters up and down hills, and we told them about sitting in air-conditioned offices and conducting meetings. After our food came, I asked for salsa, and got a plate of sour cream with jalapeños in it. Non-plussed about that one, and about spicy food here in general, but I’ll figure something out eventually. Over cokes and burritos, Miguel and I learned that all of the volunteers here in the south were planning a group trip to the beach, and that we weren’t going to tell anyone about it, ever.

Thus begins the part where I break a lot of Peace Corps rules, and where I’m glad that this correspondence is strictly confidential, and that any and all Peace Corps personnel, active or not, especially but not limited to Peace Corps administration in Honduras, are expressly forbidden from reading any of it.

Tuesday morning, lets say around 9, Juan and I walked down to the south side of town with our towels, trunks, and a change of clothes to a little corner near the hospital where the trucks stop on their way out of town to pick up hitchhikers. Along with 4 other Peace Corps members whose names I will make up as we go along, we got a ride in the back of a pickup truck headed in roughly our direction. It was exhilarating riding in the bed of a truck watching the only town in view disappear behind you, to see farmland stretch out all around, mountains beyond, under a cloudless gorgeous sky. This was my train of thought 5 minutes later when the rat-fink of a truck driver pulled over to the side of the road, demanded 15 lempira apiece from us to continue taking us South, and then drove off after our refusal, leaving us stranded on the highway. We laughed, took a few pictures, applied sunscreen, and stuck out our thumbs. The winning combination turned out to be myself and one of the girls by the road, while the rest of the group stayed a bit off the road. Once a truck stopped, we dove in the back under the camper shell and set off for parts unknown.

The truck that chose us ended up belonging to a little family that went into Choluteca for groceries, so the bed was packed with bags, sacks of vegetables and staples, and 5 gringos (Roxy got to ride up front, because she was willing to brave possibly creepy Hondurans to not spend any significant length of time with 5 sweaty dudes in a cramped space. In the back we tried not to crush the food and played “Pancakes or Waffles” to pass the time. X taught me the game, it goes like this: The first player asks the second “Pancakes or Waffles” to which the second responds their choice and rationalizes it (“I like pancakes, my mom made them for me all the time as a kid, and there’s that emotional link.”) The option that is chosen stays on, while the other is irrevocably removed from the universe. The second player then asks the third to choose between the option left over from the first question, and something that they value equally. (Pancakes or pillows, for example) and the process repeats until the logical process is destroyed, people are choosing between a sense of touch or salt, and the universe is a really shitty place to live in. It’s a great way to get to know people, or to learn a lot about your friends’ values.

A half hour and one solid proof of the power of coffee to beat other things in Pancakes or Waffles later, we pulled into the drive of our saviors, helped them unload their car, thanked them profusely and walked back to the main road to pedir another jalon. Luck was with us, and the very first truck to pass us stopped and was going our way, so we hopped in and rode through the melon farms of southern Honduras to Cedena, 7km from the beach and our friends. There we met the local volunteer, his host family, and I found out precisely how awful the banana-flavored Marimba soft drink is. It tastes like melted slurpee water mixed with cough syrup, and I only choked down half the bottle because I was dying of thirst and I’d paid 13 lempira for it. After buying a 2L bag of water (seriously the coolest thing, little ½ liter plastic bags of drinking water for 9 cents or so) we finally managed to get a ride south in a truck that had, coincidentally, Miguel and Jose and another volunteer, Erika, in the back. With the 9 of us aboard, the driver set out south to the sea and our long awaited destination.

We hit the beach around 11:30, which after our epic hitchhiking adventure wasn’t all that bad. About twenty-five Peace Corps members had wound up there, some of them having come from many miles away, and all of us off-site without permission, a guaranteed administrative separation (read: you go home now) if we were found out. Bound together by mutual rule-breaking, we swam, tossed around a football, met the other classes of volunteers (H11, H12, up to us in H14) and generally had a blast. From the beach here you can see 3 countries, a few islands, and almost nobody else. The water quality is god-awful, but the beach is great, hot and brown and deserted for miles. We hung out for a few hours before getting hungry and sunburnt and heading down the beach to a fantastic little restaurant for fried fish, dollar beers, and a whole lot of laughing and camaraderie. Bonding, skits on how not to talk to other people about this weekend, stories, jokes, and fantastic food dominated the afternoon.

Leaving around 4, I discovered that I’d lost 100 lempira, or perhaps that I had misplaced it in other clothes. I made a quick search, but the last bus was leaving and I hopped it so as to not be proper fucked. I slept half the bus ride, got nicknamed “croc” for my apparent resemblance to Crocodile Dundee visible only to drunk Erikas, and made plans to attend a party at Jess’ house in a nearby town, because Juan’s girlfriend was in town and I really didn’t want to get in their way. He was a saint to take me in when he had other plans, and I sure wasn’t going to thank him by playing third wheel on their 2-wheeled contraption. (Full disclosure: I enjoy parties and alcohol and traveling and breaking rules, so don’t think for a moment this was all about helping him.) We made Choluteca 35 minutes later, and I ran home to Jon’s for a shower and to pack my bag. Got back to the bus station for the 5:00 ride that Jess promised, and spent an hour and 45 minutes sitting on my thumb, searching my clothes for the lost money, and being the token gringo at the bus station. Luckily I wasn’t solo, as Rudy, one of the guys who had hitchhiked into town to party, was there with me. We swapped stories as we waited, and he’s pretty cool, if a bit awkward from having been isolated at a tiny site far away from everyone for almost 2 years.

As it turns out, of the seven people who had planned to ship out to Jess’ place, only the two of us bothered to show up, and so around 6:45 when our ride blew past and we had to chase it across the bridge to get a ride, there was a lot of laughing about the lack of participation. Me, I wasn’t too shaken up about the lack of fiesta, mainly because I was on the road, riding high on life, nearly broke, breaking rules, and having an absolute blast. As the sun set over our dirty bumpy ride, I looked up and stared the universe in the face. Millions of stars looked back, and for a long while I was too awed to talk, joke, or sing. I just stared up, traced the constellations I knew, made up a few more, and grinned like an idiot at the majesty and wonder of the vast empty uncaring void we live in and try to avoid thinking about all our lives because it makes us feel like the meaningless little slugs on a backwater planet that we actually are. I loved every gritty, skull-rattling, swerving minute of it, and when we finally reached Jess’ I was sad to have to come back to our planet.

At her house, I confirmed that I had most definitely lost my money, which meant that I had precisely what I needed the next day for bus and cabfare, plus 31 lempira, which is enough to by a pair of cokes or a lot of water, and not much else. To avoid thinking about that, I had one of the beers that I’d brought, then a mixed drink with fresh mango, coconut, pineapple, and a whole lot of rum. Took a bucket shower to get the dirt and sweat off, and listened to music and talked with the few others who had made the trek out. As a party it was a bust, but as a get-together and a chance to meet other volunteers, it suited me just fine. Went for Chinese food, ended up getting tacos since the restaurant was closed . Spent 20 of my 31L, but they were delicious. Later, made grilled cheese sandwiches and finished the beers with Rudy while we all got ready for bed. Set the alarm for 4:30am, so we could catch the bus back to town and hopefully a connection back to Sarabanda and home.

Wednesday sucked a fat hairy one. We caught our buses, but I went hungry the whole day, and ended up standing the entire 4 ½ hour ride back from Choluteca to Teguz. The driver of our bus was an idiot who overcompensated for turns, floored the brakes at no provocation and with great relish, and played god-awful reggaeton at full volume over the speakers for the entire ride. Rose and I talked monetary policy and the decline of democracy in America while bracing ourselves against the seats as best we could to counteract the constant jerking lurching brake pumping of our drug-addled thalidomide baby of a driver. 15 minutes shy of Teguz, after 6 straight hours on buses, most of them standing, this dipshit decides to stop for lunch, and we all get to sit and wait while the driver and most of the passengers disembark for the next 45 minutes. I find a seat along with most of the other people who remain onboard, and drift off to sleep.

I find myself poked awake by the bus ayudante, demanding that I stand up and give my seat to some woman. (I think, was half awake) When I say no and close my eyes, he comes back with the bus driver and the two of them tell me to get up. I resume my spot in the aisle, and realize that Rose and I are the only two people who have been asked to move – everyone else who took a seat during the break is still in them. Moreover, there doesn’t seem to be any reserved seating, just a general rule of “fuck you gringo” in effect. Groovy. Pulling into Teguz finally, I walk past the driver, smile, and take advantage of the language barrier to tell him to go gargle semen. We catch a taxi across town, and are waiting for a bus to Sarabanda, and who do I run into onboard but X, fresh back from her trip to La Paz to seduce strange men, stuff them between her legs, (acro-yoga, you perverted weirdos) and show off her bikini. She feeds me bread and jam to make me stop whining, tells me wild stories, and by the time we get home I’m feeling passable again. And that, friends and family, is how to break almost all the main Peace Corps rules in one fell swoop, travel Honduras for next to nothing, and make a whole lot of new friends. The purpose of volunteer visits is to learn how other volunteers live and act in their “natural habitat,” and I think I accomplished a whole lot of that – can’t wait to do it again!

A Brief Aside:

I’ve always dreamed of being “that guy” who discovers a grave and life-altering secret about something. A little twist or adaptation that completely flips, overnight, the world’s view of something commonplace, that makes people exclaim, “by God, he’s right! This IS a better way of doing ______” and catapults me to fame, fortune, floozies, freezer pops, and other f-words. Typical self-absorbed fantasy, really. In fact, it’s never much Miguelered to me what the thing I revolutionize is; writing short stories, walking backward, sitting, standing on one leg, chewing, sex (actually, I pick this one) so much as that it changes how people do that thing in a way that makes me chuckle a bit to myself every time I see it while requiring nothing more of me then to one day walk over to the thing I’m about to change forever, look at it a moment, exclaim “oh, if I only just turn it to the left, she explodes in a shower of meaty bits and sheer ecstasy” and hang around waiting to collect my reward.

Still, as I’ve grown older I’ve found that the actual possibility of doing something new, something truly original without a lifetime of effort is complete and total horseshit. To begin with, everything, and I do mean EVERYTHING has been done already. That newest, latest, greatest invention, I don’t care what it is, is just another tweak on something that already existed, or a better sales job on something that another guy made in his garage 10 years or 200 ago. There is no originality, there is no “new,” there is only a constant evolutionary change from what was to what is to what will someday be. This is somewhat comforting, as it definitely takes the burden off of me to figure out some new twist to sex, (Seriously, how the hell can I compete with the sick shit people already do? I’d have to find another hole or something.) but it also points me in a new direction, toward a truth that is neither original nor secret, but which has held true over the years by all those who excel in their respective fields. As plainly as I can write it, here it is:

It is not what you do, or how you do it, but how much of yourself you put into your work that distinguishes it. There is no shortcut to prestige and mastery, simply hard work, love, and perseverance.

He who pours his soul, life, blood, and very self into his work consistently, year after torturous year, laboring in obscurity, working for no reward save to meet his own high standards and expectations will be held as a leader, an artist, a saint, or a poet. One who seeks to find another route to the top in his field is delusional, lazy, or a glutton for punishment and disappointment. Thus, I abandon my lazy quest to get famous without effort, and commit myself to a lifetime of exertion and toil. By no means am I giving up on being bold, new, different, and changing how something I love is done, but I’m not going to delude myself any longer that it will be easy, or that it will be soon.

Talent is not mastery. Talent plus 10,000 times is mastery.” – Japanese Proverb

A Point of Philosophical Contention:

Henry David Thoreau wrote that “under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.” I keep this thought close at hand here in Honduras, where poverty is the prison de jour, and where there are many unjustly held. My host family in Sarabanda, la familia Cerrato, is but one group held captive by the cold chains of economics. I am more convinced by the day that these bonds are easily slipped, if only there were those willing to help. If those with resources, with disposable income, with the ability to help actually did, the plight of the poor, hungry, helpless would be bettered by leaps and bounds. However those who can do not; there are too few helping hands, too many crying for too little. We few volunteers cannot hope to make the difference needed – it’s one of the first lessons to be learned here. Despite this, I place immense pride in my decision to come here and try to make a positive difference rather then to head off into the world of business, law “real” work, mortgages, and becoming a part of the merciless economic giant that is crushing the developing world under its heel.

One reason I came to Honduras in the first place was to give what aid I could to those less fortunate then myself. Another was to share their plight, to learn what it is to be truly poor, downtrodden, and subject to the whims of the owners of the world. My life with the Cerrato family served this goal admirably – I lived in near-absolute poverty, in a tiny closet of a room with drafts, cockroaches, a few geckos, glassless windows, a bare lightbulb, and dusty concrete floors. My barely functional bathroom, with its unflushing toilet, bucket shower, cracked and crumbling walls, was a point of pride. The bare dirt of the yard, the flithy dogs, the kids kicking a cracked soccer ball next to the highway because they lacked a field – these all were things that validated my choice, that gave me strength and convinced me of the righteousness of my path. I was living, at least for a short while, in Thoreau’s prison. I was the just man, sacrificing what little I had to join the unjustly held in common bondage. I was happy with my place in life as much because of as in spite of its problems.

Unfortunately for my smug sense of moral righteousness, this all came crashing down in a heap with our recent move from Sarabanda to Pespire. The Peace Corps placement officer, apparently taking pity on my previous living situation, assigned me to live with the richest family in town – la familia Rivera-Castro – hoteliers, businesspeople, teachers, patrons of the arts, public spaces, and the Catholic church. In the space of one 2 ½ hour bus ride I went from abject poverty to real (read: not just relative) wealth. This family has the works: cars, a Spanish-styled mansion, money, reputation, power, servants, and a whole lot of possessions. Also of note: a little monkey I’ve named George, birds, raccoons, (I know, what the fuck?) a giant open-air patio with hammocks and ample sitting room, a plasma TV as big as any I’ve personally seen in the states, an expansive yard with fruit trees, a pool, (sadly drained at the moment) a solid 6 bedrooms, and enough open space to stage a 100 person party and not even badly crowd any particular room. In terms of material wealth, it’s the nicest place I’ve ever lived.

This puts me in a bit of a moral quandary – I really did come here to live as a Honduran (Catracho, as they say) which to me means to live as the average poor farmer or laborer – without many luxuries, in a tiny house, eating bland food, and surviving day to day, hand to mouth. Frankly, I wanted my life to suck. I crave that experience, and instead for the next 7 weeks I’ve been given the opportunity to experience the exact opposite. Note I say opportunity – I doubt that I will ever live this well again, as the career paths I see myself embarking upon put me more in the orbits of the laborers and servants of the world then the owners. For now, as much as it bothers me to set aside my mission to understand poverty and the impoverished, I cannot deny that this is a fantastic way to take a stab at understanding what it is to be rich. And besides; I can hardly deny that I dislike this life – the fresh fruit, meat at most meals, sweets, comfortable bed, real towels, running water, girls working to make my life pleasant, and other perks are hardly things I’m sad to have access to. (Side note: it is SO DAMN WEIRD to have servants in the house. I’m really not comfortable asking people to do things for me, and even less so when they’re doing because they’re paid to!)

I guess I write this mainly to assuage my conscience, but as it will significantly impact the things that I will be writing about, I feel that I must also pass it along to you – I’m living in luxury, surrounded by filthy lucre, the guest of honor of one of the most honored families in town. As X puts it, I’m outside of my comfort zone, for while I haven’t yet reached a lower bound as to where I’m uncomfortable living, I have definitely passed my upper limit – this life scares me, makes me nervous and all-around uncomfortable. I’m out of my element, don’t know how to act, and catch myself watching my words, my steps, how I smile. Hopefully I’ll loosen up eventually. I’ll try my best not to let it spoil me but I plan to enjoy an opportunity I may never get again. So long as I don’t come out of this some sort of asshole (and I’m sure X will tell me long before it becomes a real issue) I can’t see any harm coming from it, except as it serves to impede my philosophical and moral development. Sorry Thoreau, but I guess I’m just not your just man today…

Getting My Runner’s Fix:

One of my great joys here in Honduras is running. In lieu of crack, smack, rock, chronic, hanging out in airport men’s rooms, cutting myself, snorting cat piss, or any of those other things you crazy kids do and I’ve never tried, I’ve been getting my high simply from running as if a bunch of rabid dogs were chasing me. (Even when they aren’t!)

This morning I got up at 4:30am, decided there was no way in hell I was going to get up and run around when there wasn’t any point. At 5:00 I dragged myself forcibly out of bed, complaining and whining the whole way, to the park across the street where I waited in the pre-dawn twilight for my running partners to push, trick, and cajole their unwilling selves to our meeting point. While waiting, I watch the morning stumble of the bolos. (really, incredibly, stupidly drunk individuals, every town has at least a few. Addicts, sometimes homeless, they’re really sad and really creepy at once. We would just call them bums and crazies, but here they get their own special name, just because there are so many of them.)

After we’ve met up, stretched, waited a bit for the no-shows, we set out for a slow warm-up lap of the town, dodging stray dogs, greeting the world as it wakes up, sometimes running aside highways sucking exhaust, other times scrambling up gravel and rocks to run through a cemetery. As we run, we’ll toss out topics (Stories involving vomiting, go!) tell jokes, get to know each other better, struggling to keep up the narrative between breaths, feet pounding a ragged rhythm as we push ourselves up the next big hill. Usually the run goes as long as it has to, with arbitrary turn around points, (that next big tree) weird encounters, (the other day we ran into a bull, then a cow, then another cow, then twenty more – our own mini running of the bulls) finally culminating in a sprint up a hill to end panting and euphoric to the inquiring stares of those around. It’s pointless; the destination unknown, the only purpose to push our endorphins up, to stretch our lungs and muscles, in search of those beautiful minutes or hours of unstoppable bliss that follow. As far as things worth abusing, this is one of the better I’ve found – certainly less harmful then most of the rest.

A Walking Tour of Pespire:

So this section was supposed to be full of pictures of my new town, as we were told that Pespire has ready access to the internet. Instead I’ve given up on that and am going to spend the next few paragraphs ranting incoherently and swearing about my internet connection, or lack thereof. What they didn’t mention to us before we tried it ourselves is that the connection here is slower then mole asses full of molasses, and it takes so long to load a site that I spend a good half of my time “using the internet” reading a book, writing callous and meanspirited rants about how bad the connection is, or checking out the girls using the other computers. (For anyone who cares, which might just be me, the connection averages 0.5-7kb/sec, which makes your old dial-up modem look like a juiced up PCP junkie fleeing from the donut-crumb-spewing near-cardiac-arrest mall cops that represent the internet speed down here as well as my intense hatred of rest-a-cops.) Yes, I’m a little angry.


It was, quite honestly, better not to have internet at all, as I wasn’t tempted by it, Before, when I didn’t walk past unsecured wifi nodes throwing piropos (pickup lines, propositions, see email #3) at all hours of the day, when I couldn’t walk around the corner to a little cafe to sit down and boil at my computer as it takes 10 minutes to load any given page, it didn’t bother me so much. Now that the carrot has been dangled over my head, I keep biting for it, disregarding that it’s actually a lump of moldy bread and shit disguised a carrot which incidentally I don’t like quite so much anyway, not enough to make any sort of real effort for, so maybe I ought to have just said that a large piece of Grandma Scheffers’ lemon cake had been dangled in front of my face and leave it at that. So yes, I keep taking big bites of the moldy shitcake and coming back for more because I want to keep my connection to you all open. Feel special.

Anyhow, I’m working on a couple solutions to my no internet, yes problem. The first involves a long bucket brigade of flash drives being shipped back from here full of pictures, and being returned by as yet unidentified “kind souls” in the states full of movies and pictures and games and whathaveyou. If anyone is interested in going that route, just know that I am too, but that I have no flash drives except one with all of my documents and another with the install files for my entire operating system should my computer have problems. As such, this would require people to just send me flash drives, a 3 week process, and then wait another 3 weeks for me to send them back. With the sketchy mailing system here, there’s a pretty high chance of things getting lost or stolen too. That said, I’m absolutely willing to try if you’re up to possibly lose your flash drive. Just don’t send me anything you don’t want lost, stolen, or missing for months at a time only to turn up in Fresno in a box marked “beware of the leopard.”

Better would be for me to buy a cell data network card for my phone or for my computer. The cell networks beat the land-line internet, as the infrastructure isn’t there, and satellite is well outside my price range. I’ve been looking into it, and they seem to range from $25-45 a month depending on carrier, which is barely in my price range if at all. So for now, unless I can start getting paid to write long winded emails or short stories about nothing, I might be SOL on the internet front. That said, if I can find some sort of suckers err donors to help me out… Well that might work out too. I’ll keep you posted on this one – if I make it into Choluteca or Teguz I should be able to talk to someone at a cellphone store, and maybe get a real price estimate, or even a contract if they’re cheap enough. Until then, expect the drought of pictures and flood of bitching to continue.

How My New Life Mercilessly Beats Apart My Old One:

We’re going to break from the normal format to play high points, then low points, ready set go!

  • People love to dance.

  • It’s one of those towns where you get to know everyone, it has one main street, and I’m in love with the place. It’s fun when kids shout your name as they ride by on bikes. Feeds the ego and all that.

  • River with a bonified swimming hole and jumping rock (watch for the minus in a sec)

  • I have my own private corner of the house.

  • There’s a pool, being filled as I type.

  • The monkey, who I’ve named George, doesn’t actually bite, just pretends to. Also he loves me and has yet to throw poo at me. Looks vaguely human and loves mangoes.

  • There’s a significant drinking subculture. Plenty of places to go and party without being judged or ostracized.

  • They still think gringos are a pretty neat idea here in Pespire, which can’t be said for everywhere else.

  • As X told me, my freckles have begun to merge together into a crude mockery of a tan, and between that and the sunburns I’m less of a pasty bastard.

  • Soccer field on the side of town.

  • WatSan work is awesome. I spend 5 days a week out in the fields, doing actual projects, field surveys, topographic studies. Beats the pants off an office job, even an office job where I could go pantsless.

  • Running is great – the aldeas (suburbs, rural outskirts) are really pretty, so long as you’re up early enough to beat the heat.

  • I get fed like I’ve never eaten before, 3 huge meals a day and all the fresh fruit I can eat. It’s fantastic after the close-to-starvation level I felt like I was at in Sarabanda some days.

  • Someone keeps beating me to doing my laundry. I pretty much do nothing to support myself here already, and down it’s down to “wipe ass” and “continue breathing.”

…and How It Makes Me Wish I Was Elsewhere:

  • Bug bites. Jesus fuck. It’s been better since I got a mosquito net, but still I average 3-4 a night, and this in an area where 3 of the last class of 14 Wat/San trainees got Dengue.

  • It’s 100 degrees and humid most days, and only 95 the rest. It gets down to 80 at night.

  • A dearth of young, pretty, unmarried women. Seems like an all-over-Honduras sort of problem, what with the average marriage age being 23.

  • So much for independence – There’s no way I’m going to learn how to cook, clean, sanitize, or anything else when I’m living with 2 houseworkers and I’m not allowed to touch cleaning implements or the stove.

  • My room is 20 degrees hotter then the house all day every day. I sleep naked without sheets and a fan pointed straight at me and I still wake up 2-3 times a night.

  • Malaria drugs are still fucking me up. I dreamed the other night that I had to fight a bunch of savage little kids, and beat them to death with my bare hands. Worse, I was into it. Woke up shaking and couldn’t sleep the rest of that night. The dreams are goddamn awful, and every night I have some horrible trip involving blood, violence, and horrible death of myself or loved ones. I’d stop taking them except for the automatic separation if anyone finds out, and the fact that Malaria is pretty awful too. We’ll see.

  • The river is dirtier then something very dirty. I’m pretty sure that if I spend much more time in there I’ll get an infection in some orifice. We have to go pretty far upstream to feel comfortable getting in the water, and even then it’s a grim scene. Smells bad, it’s hot, and I’m certain it’s full of things I don’t want to think about.

  • Privacy is a lost art here. I have to pretty much barricade my door to get some time alone, which means I’m sitting in the hottest little room in the house sweating like a rapist trying to study. If I’m in a public area, I’m fair game to be talked to.

  • I still don’t get most of the jokes and most of them are at my expense. My Spanish is pretty much practical knowledge only – I’m just now learning how to swear and to make jokes, but it’s a slow process and it’s frustrating some days.

  • They rearranged our language groups, and now I’m in with a group of people who are mainly a level or two below me. It’s frustrating, because whereas before I was pushed to be as good as my classmates, now I feel like I’m coasting along as we review stuff I did weeks ago.

For now, that’s all the good/bad I can think of putting together, so here we go; back to the rock. (Cue May 16th, Lagwagon)

Baby’s First Field Survey:

Here’s what I do most afternoons here – after lunch we’ll set out in groups of 3-6 with surveying equipment, water, machetes, and a few campesinos (locals) to do topographic studies and/or plot out pipelines. Generally we’re out there 3-4 hours each afternoon, with volunteers to guide us, campesinos to help us, and a specific task, a section to survey, a path to map. I flip my phone upside down so the speakers stick out, put it in my shirt front pocket, and play some tunes as we make our slow way down/up/across/through whatever is in our way. While I love the equipment, my favorite job by far is to be the guy scouting ahead, finding new survey points, hacking trees and bushes and children out of the way with a machete. Given that the machetes the Peace Corps has for us to train on are about as sharp as my leg, it takes a while to cut anything, so you should hear these kids scream. Awful really.

Seriously though, it’s a fantastic job – compared to all of the offices, stores, and whatnot, there’s really no way to beat going out into the hills and doing something that will change the lives of people who don’t have much to look forward to. The tangible difference, where women and children don’t have to walk hours to the river every day to fill heavy buckets and bring them home, is absolutely staggering. I’ve never felt quite so helpful, useful, or appreciated ever, so that’s pretty nice. It’s also great to be the most interesting thing in town, with the men all trying to help, all the kids following, and the women peeking out of their houses to watch the circus roll through town.

Shooting a point works like this: one member of the team moves ahead with either a large stick, a collapsible pole with meters marked out on it, or a reflective prism. They pick a spot as far away as possible from the rest of the team, in the direction we need to go, where the terrain is representative of the area between the team and themselves, and hopefully where we can use PVC, since it’s cheaper. This is our new point, (A). The member with the surveying equipment levels it over the previous point, (B) then shoots a measurement back to a third member at the point we all just left, (C.) This is called the backshot, and it is used to measure differences in the horizontal angle, or cardinal direction, between one shot and the next. After we’ve got that, the member at (B) spins the equipment to face (A) and figures out the distance, change in vertical angle, and makes note of the height of the equipment. Meanwhile the recorder is writing everything down and making note of the terrain, houses nearby, roads, types of pipes, etc, and the rest of the team is repositioning for another shot.

When we get the rhythm down, we move at a scorching pace of a few hundred yards an hour. The terrain is usually not conducive to this type of work, there aren’t any straight shots, and we have to adjust constantly to towns, rocks, ravines, and all manner of problems. Despite all this, I love the work, and I can’t wait to do more of it. I think I’m going to tell all the other volunteers that whenever they want another helper to call me and I’ll find my way to their site. It”ll be like a vacation except I’ll be carrying a few bags and boxes on my long walks through the countryside and working my (admittedly hot) ass off. So really, just like work except I won’t be hating it.

Guaro and Me – A Love Story:

Every part of the world has their local booze, and here in Honduras it’s Guaro, their version of moonshine, except it goes down just fine with Coke, which I’ve never felt was true about moonshine.


My first experience with Guaro was our first Friday night here in town, when one of the host families invited all of the trainees over for dinner. 15 of us eventually made the trip to meet the family and eat Papusas. (fried tortilla, rice, beans, meat, cheese, other fried tortilla, then drench it all in chili sauce and salsa, like a little bomb of love and grease.) Another reason we went was that the chisme (rumors, gossip) said there would be drinking and dancing, and I’m all sorts of into that. On the way to the party, a few of us stopped off at the liquor store to buy beers. I asked casually about Guaro, since we’d heard a few warnings about it, and I wanted to feel out the town’s reactions. The liquor store owner pulled out a few half-pint bottles and said “15 each” which is actually cheaper then a beer, and so I bought 2 and headed back to the house.

There I spiked our drinks and we all guzzled it down. It’s kind of reminiscent of gin, at least the bite is, and the flavor has a hint of black liquorice in a sea of burn. It’s honestly not that bad, nor as alcoholic as promised. Still, after a few bottles of this, some beers, and the food, we started the dance party in earnest. I danced with pretty much everyone to pretty much everything – rumba, meringue, a bit of the punta, which I’m still learning, a really awesome rumba with X, and the line-dance version of the hustle, which I think there is a video of somewhere.

We had a great time, gringos and catrachos both, and that was before the moms broke out the rum! We partied all the way til 9:30, when I said my goodbyes and ran very quickly away from the 15 year old who was dancing on me in a way I’d be comfortable with only if she was you know… not 15 years old. Or not the host’s daughter. Or both. Anyway, it was a blast, and we’ll definitely do it again in the future. I was just overjoyed to find out that are some “bad” Hondurans whose idea of a fun Friday night doesn’t involve sitting around, going to church, or going to bed early.

Futbol is to Catrachos as Heroin is to Dope Fiends:

If futbol was a powder that you could snort, or a liquid you could inject into your eyeballs, it’d cause a whole lot of fuss down here. Luckily for all involved it’s just the biggest sport in the world, which is a statement I’ve always accepted without realizing its true magnitude until I came here and saw just how worked up the people get about their soccer games. If you want an idea, imagine how worked up we get in the US about the Super Bowl, then double it. Then double it again, and triple the resulting number and divide by ten percent. That’s about where Hondurans are for every soccer game by their national team, who incidentally just passed Mexico in our bracket to move up to that crucial third spot, so as to advance to the World Cup and a chance at making every Honduran feel like a rockstar in the off chance that they win.

Still, win or lose, the Honduran national team, our seleccion, are the national superheroes. Every game day the flags, jerseys, and facepaint appear like magic, and the people of the whole country gather around whatever televisions they can find to watch, drink, shout, curse, and share the elation or agony of the team. For a few hours the whole country pushes past the poverty, the daily grind, the mundanity and drudgery of living to share in a common love of a game that needs no translation.

As a soccer fan, this is one of the best places for me to be during the upcoming World Cup, as instead of sharing my love of the game with a half-dozen weird Americans who actually care about a sport that isn’t dull and slow and whose high points involve large sweaty men piling up all over each other, or watching 9 guys sit on their thumbs for a few hours waiting for another to hit a ball, I get to hang out with my entire town in the hotel and watch strategy, drama, and a hundred agonizingly close attempts at that one move, or that one miss, that will decide the entire match. My family owns the hotel in town, and they’ve taken to opening the top floor (a giant salon with a cross-breeze, fans, a bar, and a projector) up to the public for game days, and a large part of the town turns out for games to drink, yell, and share in the emotions of the group. It’s a great way to bond with your community here, and it’s one of the few times that it is socially appropriate to drink alcoholic beverages in this society. Unfortunately, we didn’t get the whole Honduran celebration experience that game, because Trinidad & Tobago slipped a goal in under the keeper’s arm in the last 3 minutes of the game, and tied it 1-1. There’s no shootout, no overtime in the WC qualifiers, so after stoppage time ran out we all kinda wandered home in a daze, disappointed vaguely, feeling robbed.

Still, that night my host dad and I opened a bottle of wine together after the first time, “just one glass to help us sleep.” So we had a glass and talked about wines from California and Chile, costs and types and tastes, and that expanded into talk about booze in general, and we had another glass to wet the whistle. Then he told me about how sorry he was that his whole family was always busy and couldn’t spend time with me, and how awful he felt that I wasn’t getting the whole host family experience, but the family businesses required a lot more work with the economic situation as bad as it is. We had to drink another glass so that I could properly express my gratitude at having been taken in, at how great his family was treating me, at how I couldn’t wait for Semana Santa to start so I could meet the extended family, and how much he shouldn’t worry, because everything was going great here. That took a lot out of us both, so we drank another glass and the topic switched to economics in general, and the mess that is the Honduran economy, and after another glass we switched Honduran and American politics, and then how similar bankers and thieves are a glass after that. We went for another glass after that, but as it turned out we were out of wine, so we talked a bit longer about how much better my Spanish was when I was drunk, and then stumbled off to bed. It was one of those damn huge bastante supergrande big bottles too – 1.5 liters of mid-grade Chilean Cabernet Savignon – and I had to help him down the (3!) stairs to the bedrooms before wandering off to write and laugh to myself.

Sorry, lost my train of thought because Alejandra, the baby, was crying again – she does a lot of that, teething now – and 6 months comes with a pretty wicked set of lungs. I’m talking to her in English and Spanish both, figuring that I might as well set her up for an early bilingual advantage or something. I sang her songs, told her all about Barbie and how she creates a terrible model for young girls because she’s totally fake, helped her roll over back and forth for a bit until she drooled on herself and finally slipped back to sleep. Still, my story about drinking and god-only-knows-what-else is shot to hell, so I guess I’ll carry on with the other soccer game I’ve watched.

The second game we met up at the same house from the dance party I mentioned earlier. It’s pretty much a bar, and so we set up a TV, popped open a round, and set in to watch the game. Actually, there’s a part I’ve left out. Before any of this happened, R and I headed down to the liquor store to have a beer and rest from 4 hours surveying out in the hot sun. We buy one each, and as we’re standing around drinking them in the store (classy, but better then being seen in the streets – chisme is so fast it makes your head spin, and we’d earn “bolo” labels for sure) when two guys sitting at a nearby table call us over to sit and talk with them. We take the other two seats, meet the men, and it turns out they’re pretty good and drunk. Cue 45 minutes of them regaling us with stories, laughing at their own jokes, and buying us more drinks so we can’t leave any time soon. They had some deep-rooted anti-American in them, but they seemed to like us, and one actually invited us over to his house whenever we liked. I’ve yet to stop by, but he seems the type to be totally open to strange gringos stopping by for a beer and a story. After we managed to extract ourselves, we meandered over to the game, and the real party started.

We walked into the bar/house and straight into about 25 chairs set in a circle. All of our friends were there, a lot of the teachers, and a smattering of Hondurans. We were greeted with beers (#4 in an hour… yeesh) and took our seats just in time for the kickoff. Honduras vs Mexico, great game from our end. Got it to 2-0 at the end of the first half, and just knocked Mexico’s socks off. Final score 3-1, with Mexico’s only goal coming off a penalty kick toward the last 20 minutes. Great work by the Honduras team, and the win pushed us just barely into the top 3 in our division, behind Costa Rica and the US in a commanding first place. Lots of beer, celebrations, cheering, and fun. It felt a lot like my old life in Santa Barbara, except this time the drinking wasn’t the game itself. After we were through, we walked home and once again were in our houses by 9pm or so. Holy old person bedtimes, Batman!

Our First Fallen Comrade:

One of the best things about being here in the Peace Corps is that you become incredibly close to those serving with you. It’s unavoidable – you spend 10 hours a day with people and you’re going to get real close, real fast. Here in Pespire are 17 of my close friends, comrades in arms, amigos. We’ve become a tight-knit family, even within the greater group of friends that is the Peace Corps. WatSan… (that’s the cool kid’s way of talking about water and sanitation, which is too long to yell out when you throw you WatSan gang signs) well, WatSan is even closer, even more interwoven. We have a reputation to uphold as the hottest, most useful, best, coolest program out here in Honduras, and we’ve all taken this as a challenge, to the point of pranking the other groups, and it has become our rallying cry. We work harder, we’re closer, we put up with more problems, we help more people, and we’re family.

This brings me to the worst part of building camaraderie with a large number of people with diverse lives and different motives… eventually you’re going to lose someone. Be it to a change of heart, illness, burnout, a lifestyle change, whatever, you’re going to have close friends and allies ripped away from time to time. Worse still, there are those times when the change is both sudden and no fault of the one leaving, as is the case with our good friend and brother Ross.

The most unassuming guy I’ve ever met, Ross introduced himself as a stockbroker, wore his hair clipped short, never took the spotlight unless needed, laughed easily, and generally managed to blend into our group. He was one of the first half-dozen people I met in Washington DC when we first arrived scared, confused, and alone, and he’s one of the signatories on my life insurance policy, Peace Corps power of attorney, and a handful of other documents. I trusted him immediately, even though I thought he was probably some sort of square – dressed up nice, married already, real job, regular life… has to be dull right? I couldn’t have picked him out of a lineup in those first days, which really just tells you how well he hid himself behind a veil of normalcy.

It took a couple weeks, but as Ross opened up to the group the layers peeled back to reveal one of the most unexpectedly interesting people I’ve met thus far. First, he’s COVERED in tattoos, but only where you can’t see them on a person dressed normally. His arms, back, chest sport works of art, and he won’t ever brag about them. I had to ask more then a few times to see what he had had done, and they’re so good that I would walk around shirtless even more then I do now just to make people jealous were I him, but he just isn’t the sort. He showed us his driver’s license once, and I stared at a huge terrifying-looking, dreadlock-wearing, monster of a man, so dissimilar from the Ross I thought I knew that I burst out laughing. I think that the two could have been in the same room and nobody would put them together as the same man save Ross’ mother or perhaps his wife.

Speaking of Ross’ wife, it’s about time I stop babbling and tie the loose ends of this tale together. Susan, Ross’ wife, decided in the past few days that she is done with the Peace Corps, that it lacks the thing(s) she is looking for, and she has decided to leave for the United States, effective immediately. Ross, sweet guy that he is, came in this morning to say goodbye, looking shell-shocked, heartbroken, and guilt-stricken. We all said our goodbyes, and that was the last I’ll ever see of him in this life. He’s back to a life of keeping himself hidden, white collar undercover work, bottled up in 9-5 hell and it’ll be all the worse because he’s tasted this life. The story is all the more heartbreaking because Ross has told all of us in WatSan that he has never been happier, never felt more alive, never belonged to any group or any place more then he does here. We had a conversation along those very lines the day before he got the news that Susan had decided to leave. Personally, I’ve never been so glad not to be married, and I’m not the only one who echoed that sentiment. What an awful situation, what a way to lose a friend. Ross, buddy, partner, friend, you will always be a part of Hondu-14, and I hope you don’t let this slow you down or douse your flame. Vaya con Dios, Catracho.

Sabana Grande Gringo Invasion:

This ought to be my last story for this email, as I imagine most of you will be glad to hear, being as we’re on page 11 already and there’s no way I’m stopping any time soon. (Aside, someone please tell me if I ought to cut these shorter. I won’t listen, but it’ll be good to know regardless.) Anyway, this is the story of how we were “those guys” and almost got kicked off a bus in the middle of nowhere, Honduras for being white and obvious. Intrigue, adventure, intoxication, some wild monkey robbery, and possibly some sex, though I’d bet against that last one. With much further ado, here’s the story of our first WatSan & Business reunion.

We bailed out of Pespire around 10:45am, 6 WatSanners out of the 11 who had expressed interest the day before. Caught a bus outside town and rode north into cooler climes. Got a sweet gringo tax on the bus, where we paid an extra 5-9 lempira just because we’re conspicuously not Honduran. Gotta love it. We bajar’d (spanglish; bajar is to get off/down) outside of the town of Sabana Grande at a little restaurant, shop, bar, zoo sort of place around 11:30, and found that we’d beat the business group. Ordered a round of beers, pushed a few tables together, and set in to wait. A beer later, still no business folk, and we found that they couldn’t catch a bus and were jaloning instead. (spanglish again: pedir jalor is to get a free ride, or really to be able to take a go, but yeah. Translating is tricky.) We wandered the zoo, saw some depressing scenes of animals in cages that shouldn’t be, joked about letting the pumas out, got sad, laughed at raccoons as a zoo exhibit, watched the monkeys sleep, and finally business showed up.

Turns out business was really serious about getting down to the business of getting hamboned, as it were, and they’d brought a whole lot of guaro and rum with them. We started party passing the bottles around the table, roughly 12 business, 6 WatSan, and washing the booze down with cokes. A round of beers, a toast to the group, to Ross, to Susan, to Peace Corps, and a large lunch order, and we were off on our mad race to get drunk. I can’t say I won, because that would be unfair to all the business folk, but I got comfortably numb and watched the festivities. There’s a lot of chisme in business, but I feel like it’s not my place to spread that outside of the PCVs, so here’s some anonymous rumors about my friends, because that isn’t sleasy or anything:

  • There’s a really sleasy dude in business who hits on everything that moves, and likes to tell girls that he has 40 condoms, and that some people call him a player but he can’t argue because “I know what the girls want.”

  • Someone got really drunk and hit by a car in the health program, but is doing fine.

  • The entire health group got in trouble for going out to night clubs and making a scene, which I found funny considering the scene we were making when I found this out.

  • There’s a lot of pairing off, sparks flying among the business types, and I can’t wait for the relationship/breakup fireworks.

  • 2 business volunteers found out already that they got the 2 best assignments in the whole program, and now they have to keep that to themselves so as to not cause a rebellion.

  • WatSan’s program kicks the hell out of what the business people are doing. Seriously, what they get to do is so boring that I felt bad for them. Sitting around making mock business plans can’t hold a candle to our construction projects, surveys, and practical, hands-on learning.

At some point while we were sharing all this, the monkeys that had been sleeping and lazy got up and made a show. One would wrap his tail around a vertical pole and run in circles, then once he got fast enough, lift his legs off the ground, lean forward, and sail around by his tail. It looked great, but while we were all watching him, his partner in crime stole a bag of cookies off one of the girls. I thought it was hilarious, though she was a bit peeved. I saw a cheapie watch in their pen as well, so I think they’re regular bandits. Great trick though, the flying tail spin.

Anyway, between the gossip and drinking and wandering around the “zoo” we caused a hell of a scene, I’m sure. A pile of drunk white people, no matter where they are in Honduras, are going to cause people to notice, and this certainly was no exception. We tried to stay away from the restaurant, but there were definitely a whole lot of mean looks thrown our way. Not because we were being rude or loud, because we weren’t, but because guys and girls don’t hang out publicly, people don’t drink hard alcohol except in secret, nobody shows affection to each other or touches members of the opposite sex in public, and to speak English in front of people down here automatically makes them think you’re talking badly about them. (More on that last one later.)

None of this was a surprise to us. We knew we were going to be the center of negative attention, which is why we were at a far-off town, at some cheesy restaurant on the outskirts, in a place where we weren’t likely to do anything that would get back to our sites. At some level you have to have fun, to get together, to let yourself go, because life as a Peace Corps Volunteer is a lot like a permanent job interview – you’re always on the stand, you’re being judged for every move, and people make up their minds about you based on your smallest moves. To run away, be slightly anonymous for a bit, and let down your hair is a VERY welcome change.

After a few hours of good times, a walking version of the tram ride that wasn’t running, some group pictures, back massages, and too much to drink, we had to be going. We’d outstayed our welcome in any case, and so we beat a retreat to the highway, said fond farewells, and caught buses in opposite directions. 4 hours, but it was like we’d been to a different world – no worrying about your reputation, no paranoia that this beer or that English conversation is going to get you labeled as a rude, drunk, ignorant gringo by your entire community. Just some good times with good friends, good food, and some poor imprisoned animals. Still, as Sabana Grande faded into the background, I had no idea the drama about to unfold with us at center stage.

There’s a lot of anti-USA hatred here, especially since we deport approximately 200 Hondurans/day from the states, and treat them none to kindly. A lot of separated families, broken hearts, and starving children get blamed (not without reason) on the states. Plus our economic problems are hitting them a HELL of a lot harder down here then anything you guys can feel up there yet. We’re talking a 50+% drop in business from the US already, and we account for some 75% of their trade. It won’t be pretty down here in a few months, and the crime rate is already skyrocketing. Sadly, this anger gets misdirected toward the white people that the average Honduran actually sees, which is pretty much medical brigades, engineers, us, and people who have come down here to help. It comes at you doubly if you’re speaking English in front of Hondurans, and treble if you’re being rude about it.

Unfortunately, we got the attention of the people on the bus we flagged down on our way home. Six gringos piling into an already past-full bus is bound to raise a few eyebrows, but 6 bubbly, slightly intoxicated gringos speaking English pushing our way into the bus earned us a lot of stern looks, angry comments, and more then one suggestion to throw us off before the next stop. (“They come here, but we get thrown out if we come into their country,” was one comment.) Since it’s Semana Santa, the biggest holiday of the year and the big travel weekend, there was plenty of agreement on that last one, if for no other reason then the extra leg room. Thankfully we struck up a conversation in Spanish with some of the other passengers and cooler heads prevailed, but for a while I was actually worried about mob violence, simply because we were talking another tongue. Not a lot of tolerance for anything English right now, especially since we were leaving a tourist-y location and not actively working at the time. It was a good splash in the face though, to see the difference between how we’re treated as Peace Corps members in our community and as regular old gringos everywhere else.

So that’s pretty much it, aside from the bus preacher, who yelled Corinthians at us as we balled down the highway passing cars on the left and right, swerving and sliding. We jumped off at the restaurant where one of the married couples lives, had some awesome cantelope juice, and walked home in time for dinner. Not a bad day, all things considered, and we’ll definitely do something similar soon. Much love for the business friends, even if they are a bunch of drunks.

Music Recommendations:

I’m listening to these bands a lot down here. They’re mostly not Honduran, but they all sing/play their hearts out and mostly in Spanish. Check them out, I bet you’ll find at least one you like.

  • Manu Chao

  • Brazilian Girls

  • Bacilos

  • Antibalas (Antibalas Orchestra)

  • Gypsy Kings

  • The Kooks

  • Mana (Maná)

  • Melendi

  • Minus the Bear (of course)

  • Los Lobos (used their version of La Bomba for something that I’ll tell you all later)

  • K-CO

  • The Knife

  • Los Fabulosos Cadillacs (Spanish Ska, pretty much)

  • Tito Puentes

  • Cake (perfect music for pretty much everything)

  • Beck

Official Betting Odds That X and I Will Have Sex At Some Point During Service:

Currently sitting at 3:1, so I’d get your bets in early as this is sure to drop sooner then later, especially if guaro comes into play. Sorry marida, had to write it! (Contractual Obligation, check section 4, paragraph 9, clause 3 of the attention whore guidebook: I know you have your copy lying around and probably annotated.)

Regarding My Cell Phone and Calling Me, and Also the Blog:

So here’s something interesting: there’s a website, www.ezetop.com that lets you put money on my phone, which will dramatically increase my odds of calling you and sharing far cooler stories then I’ve written here. (Ask Chad) Moreover, if you do want to talk to me, it’s far cheaper then calling cards, and it’ll allow me to actually call people in the states. You see, it costs me about 4 lempira/minute to talk to you guys, which translates to all of 20 cents a minute – if you put the minimum $15 on my account we’ll get about 250 lempira of talk time, which is pretty huge considering my daily stipend is only 57 lempira. Add in the lower rates late at night and on special days, and we could have a lot of conversations for next to nothing. So yeah, that’s my pitch: go to the website, make an account (just requires your email) make sure you change the “what phone do you want to add $ to” to Honduras, TIGO, and my number is 9576 2348. Hook a brother up, and then shoot me a text (760-807-5188 is my US number, normal text charges only) and I’ll call you up and regale you with tales of adventure, daring-do, and whathaveyou. Or not, if you’re content on missing on my silky smooth voice and words like mana from heaven.

As for the blog – mentalcigarettes.wordpress.com – I just actually tried to access it without my admin login, and found out that the whole thing was sitting behind a username/password wall. (Thanks for the security job Chad, and the heads up Bri.) It should be fixed now – each individual post is passworded, but the password is just 1337, so stop by if you like. Right now it’s just these emails and a few older stories, but if more people then me start visiting it, I’ll put a lot more of my older writing up – there are some gems – but I’m really unmotivated right now, since I know nobody actually visits and I can just read my local copies here.

So that’s it for now. “Only” 16 ½ pages in my word processor, and hopefully it’s as interesting to you all as it was for me to write. Call me, write me, contact me in whatever fashion you desire (I do take carrier pigeons and pony express riders) and I’d love to hear about your lives, follies, adventures, highs, lows, and anything you’re willing to tell me. Miss you all lots, and we’ll be in touch soon. Hasta Pronto!

Peace Corps Diary #3

March 21, 2009

Hello folks!

First, a restatement of one of my core philosophical beliefs in the form of a guiding principle for humanity:

Life Begets Death Begets Life Anew, For All Eternity.

This is true at all levels. From the lowest quarks, whose infinite probabilities are destroyed forever by the simple act of observation, then recreated when no one is influencing them, to the life and death of organisms, planets, galaxies, and the universe(s?) all things live, die, and are reborn in other forms. Death is simply part of life, which is part of death all the same. What we call “a life” is simply one section of the greater universal lifeforce, separated out from the whole so that we may tell stories about it individually. It is not ours to worry about death or life beyond it, only to make that portion of life which we call our own better in some small way. If we can do that, then we are improving life for all. As a self-aware, sentient, and learning species, it is our duty to improve on life, to guide it, and to spread it to all places where it may flourish. That, rather then simple species reproduction, ought to be our guiding purpose in all actions.

Or put more simply, make your life into the best story that you can possibly tell, and strive always to better the world around you.

Life is Most Authentic on the Frontiers

On the frontiers of the world, one sees the essential characteristics as if magnified – good, bad, greed, lust, envy, honesty, trust, charity, love – all played out in sharp relief against a background of hardship and unforgiving life. When the margins of error are smaller, when mistakes are more costly and failure as well, the true natures of people are revealed. It is as if necessity has stripped bare the very souls of all those it touches; obfuscation an unaffordable luxury. Honduras is one of those frontiers, and looking into the bared souls of the people here is proving to be one of my greatest learning experiences.

Buses

The buses here are a whole other experience. I have a theory about Honduran bus drivers, namely that they are chosen from the “best” of Honduras’ drivers, which means that anywhere else they would be called the worst drivers in the world. Chad, I’m sorry, you’ve got nothing on these men, who careen up and down mountains in the wrong lane, around corners, between pedestrians and traffic, barely slowing, and stopping only if the riders are unwilling to jump off as the bus drives by their stop all while driving 50 year old American school buses. They’re all nuts, but somehow they keep on the roads, get passengers where they need to be, and run with a very impressive degree of good timing and a solid schedule.

Inside is mayhem. Usually there are more people then seats, passengers balancing in the aisles, women with babies, kids sleeping in the seats, bags and boxes and piles of possessions. No animals yet, but I’m sure I’ll see some soon. The whole group moves as a mass, bouncing and swaying and supporting themselves as the bus driver tries to throw them all down a ravine. And into the middle of this all steps me, the token gringo.

It’s great because I don’t just draw stares, I actually get double-takes. Little kids are especially funny, because they’ll just stare unabashedly, while their mothers and fathers and older siblings look away politely. The young ones, the under-5 crowd, will just gape at this strange man with the funny hat and white face. I smile and make faces at them, and just try to enjoy the attention. A bus ride down here is at once a day’s entertainment, a great way to improve your relationship with your higher power of choice, a strong statement about the state of US public transit (honestly; it’s better here) and it only costs 6 Lempira. (about 30 cents) A bargain if you ask me!

Dogs in Honduras

One thing that really gets me here is the dogs. They really have a raw deal, and that’s here in a country where I feel that pretty much everyone gets the short end of the stick. Everywhere I go, I see stray dogs, ribs sticking straight through the skin, tails tucked between their legs, rooting through garbage trying to survive. At the same time, they’re being kicked, sworn at, spit at, and generally treated like scum by the people here, which, to be fair, they kind of are.

There are hundreds of strays just in this small town, and more every day, since nobody spays or neuters their pets, and they all just roam wild anyway. Still, every day I see another little stray puppy, battered and skinny, flea-bitten and weak, and I just want to take it home and nurse it back to health. And yet every day I keep walking, keep staring ahead, hoping that I’ll be lucky and won’t see its maggot-eaten body in a ditch later that week while I’m out running. I’ve been unlucky twice now.

A new stray appeared at school today, a little black puppy with white belly and nose, too-big paws and a loving demeanor. She’s already too small for her age, but still cute enough to garner a few scraps from the students. S (another student) and I played her a while, petting her, making her kick, and of course she had fleas, ticks, burrs, the works. We talked about starting a shelter for stray animals, but I have no idea where we would get the money or volunteers. Still, as a side project I’d love to try it.

The dogs people own are just that: possessions. They sleep outside, eat scraps, get kicked and sworn at, and guard the house. They’re never bathed, pet, or loved like dogs here – they’re work animals, and this land is too harsh to waste time babying tools. People here are always interested in how much I care for animals, petting the strays, playing with Panchito and Glifford (the house guard dogs) and generally paying attention to something that people really don’t even think about during their day. I guess the best analogy here would be someone who plays with the Roomba, but to be fair, I did that too in the house. (“Hello Robot!”)

Anyway, I will adopt a dog at some point, be it a stray or an unwanted puppy, and I’ll have a partner soon enough. For now, I guess I just have to keep being “that guy” and showing way too much love to the public nuisances. I can’t help myself! They (the dogs) are an analogy for the people of Honduras and other parts of the world – abandoned by the owners of the world, left to their own devices, hungry and hurt, fighting for their very survival. I feel for them both, the dogs and the people, and I hope I can do something to help them all before I’m through here.

An All-Starch Diet

Ok, so it’s not ALL starch, but it’s close enough. White rice, black and refried beans, corn tortillas, it’s pretty much all staples with some vegetables or occasionally meat thrown into the mix. It’s good, but you start to feel… heavy. Plus, it comes out with a vengeance, or not at all. Part of that might be my body not being sure how to adjust to this new food, but honestly you’re going to have some wicked shits now and again. (Sorry, brief aside: part of not being able to speak English much is that when you do get to speak it, you have a filthy mouth. We’ve all turned into sailors; it think it comes from an inability to express strong feelings in Spanish the same way we can in English – when we get to speak our native tongue, we overcompensate like a motherfucker.)

Anyway, the food makes you poop a lot, or if you don’t drink enough water, not at all. A few volunteers have had to be given pills already, and the results are hilarious to the observer – lots of running frantically to the bathroom as they get the bodily equivalent of a wide-open tap. So yeah, lots of poop jokes, lots of bland food, but at least we’re eating well. One of the reasons I’ve stepped up my running to 3 days a week, yoga 2/week, and exercises and calisthenics daily is that I feel like I’ve been eating bricks. The girls especially have to watch out here; it sneaks up on you and suddenly you’re all fatties. And we all know nobody likes a fatty! (sarcasm, some people are way into that sorta gig.) I need to switch subjects before this gets more incriminating or vile.

I get a lot of food cravings here. Mostly, they’re fleeting desires for something I know I can’t have – blueberry pancakes or a gala apple, (update, found the apples, they’re delicious) but some of them are ruthless and stick with you for the long haul. I’ve had vivid dreams about sourdough bread grilled cheese sandwiches and chicken soup, and every morning I crave loose-leaf green tea with honey and have to settle for Honduran coffee. (still great, but it’s like trying to satisfy an itchy nose by putting in eyedrops – close, but it’s treating the wrong problem.)

Really though, food is becoming more and more of a non-issue for me. Given no variety, I stop thinking about it, stop looking forward to meals, and just eat to stay fed. It’s boring, but it’s probably a healthier way to go about things. Not that there isn’t excellent Honduran food – enchiladas (really, more like tostadas for you in the states – in particular are amazing, but you just don’t have the luxury of eating variety most days, and so the palate falls asleep and you mow your way through rice and beans, beans and rice, with some delicious avocados (good lord, I almost forgot how to spell that!) mangoes and pineapple on occasion.

Security Concerns

One thing that I find myself thinking about more and more here is security, both mine and that of my possessions. From our almost-daily safety and security lectures, the idea is pounded into our heads that we WILL have security incidents, we will probably be mugged, or robbed, or burglarized, or have our pockets picked, and if we’re lucky, that’s all that will happen. We’re also taught that we shouldn’t fight back, that we need to accept the dangers, and that we can minimize the effects of these incidents by staying calm, cooperating, and just giving people what they want. (Usually your cell phone and money) I find myself very much not ok with this.

Perhaps I’m being stubborn, but the idea of giving up, giving in, and resigning myself to losing my things bugs me. Plus, on the off chance that my assailant(s) isn’t after just my phone, I want to be able to react, not just roll over and die.  In conjunction with the Peace Corps policies, I’ve been developing my own safety and security routine: the hope is that I’ll be able to better recognize the dangers around me, minimize my losses in case an incident does occur, and most importantly, be able to scale my actions in response to varied threats to my health and safety. Considering that the Peace Corps doesn’t teach action, only reaction, this ought to give me a leg up on any of my classmates.

First, preparation: all valuables get to stay home or hidden. I’d love to take pictures of everything, but wandering around with a camera is like wearing a 10 foot high neon “I’m a big idiot; please rob and kill me!” sign. Thus most of my pictures are going to be in my head, or in areas where I’m safe/at home. My money goes in 4 different pockets, and the big bills (its all relative) go into my shoe. The phone gets wrapped in a bandana and tied around my ankle. The dummy wallet with nothing much in it; 30-40 lempira, (about 2 bucks ) maybe an ID card, goes into my jacket pocket, and the $21 Honduran cell phone (more on this later) goes in my left front. My good glasses stay home; I wear the pair covered in spray paint and held together by superglue. In every way I dress down, trying to be just another face in the crowd. It’s not easy, since I’m lily white and the world is brown, but I manage pretty well for a gringo.

In my front right pocket I have my pocket knife, easily accessible and always sharp. This is perhaps my biggest liability and best preparation combined, and I have to be very careful about when/if I use it. Around here, having a knife means you’re a criminal or a gang member, which is really stupid considering A) all the real gang members have guns, and B) all the REAL gang members have AK-47s. My piddly 4” blade isn’t going to do anything about that, but at the same time, I’m unwilling to let myself go out completely unarmed into a dangerous world – I didn’t do it in the US, why would I do so in a part of the world in which I have a real chance of being a victim? Sure, I’m not going to knife a guy who is pointing a gun at my face, but if he’s pointing the gun off to the side while he’s going through my wallet and he’s within arm’s distance… I like to feel that I could at least make an effort at self-defense if I felt my life was in danger. At the least it’s better then the official “kiss your ass goodbye” policy that the Peace Corps teaches.

Similarly, I’ve started taking self-defense seriously again. Nothing fancy; just the meanest and most foolproof hits, hip-throws, elbows, shoulder-charges, and aggressive techniques I’ve learned. I don’t expect to use them, but if the situation presents itself, I want to be able to react quickly and correctly, and part of that is just keeping security at the forefront of your mind at all times.

From all we’ve learned, it’s the unprepared, the careless, the reckless who suffer the most unwanted attention and incidents, and so I’ll be none of those, keep myself invisible in crowds, and come out of this all ok. And in the off chance that I’m a target, I’ll be ready.

Dancing! One of the luckiest parts of my situation down here is that I’ve been accidentally paired up with X, a world-tripping, yoga-enthusiastic, street-smart, down-to-earth lefty type who just happens to be in my same program. Oh and she’s inappropriate and shameless for good measure. As it turned out, we live less then 100 feet away from each other, and I’m actually typing this while sitting on her bed. (Another Peace Corps rule violation, but not one I’m too worried about.) We’ve become amazing friends for having met a scant 2 weeks ago, and we spend almost all of our time together.

We run, do yoga, meditate, talk, swap stories, do homework together, place bets upon what ills will befall which of our classmates, and generally act like we’re joined at the hip. We’re very similar personality types, and so we get along like best friends after no time at all. Having her around has made this transition a whole lot easier. As luck would have it, she’s also a fantastic dancer, especially at salsa. A couple times now, we’ve just started dancing, either in the home or at a restaurant with a live band. She’s better then I am, but it’s great because as any dancer will tell you, having a great partner really makes you step up your game and improve. We’re still learning how the other reacts, but in just a few hours we’ve gotten a whole lot better, and we have room to improve for sure.

Last Sunday we headed down to El Paso, this strange little restaurant between Sarabanda (where we live) and Santa Lucia. (the nearest big town) X and myself, along with her host mother, walked down the road a mile or so to El Paso, this funky little “Mexican”-themed restaurant with live bands, rickety metal slides, and really disgustingly greasy food. Really though, we’d just gone there to dance, so I couldn’t care less. X, her host mom, and I danced a lot, even though the beat was so metronomic (bump bump, bump bump, bump bump, bump bump…) that I really don’t want to call it music. We did a lot of salsa, west coast swing, learned the punta mas o menos, (it’s all in shaking your butt) and tried to remember rumba and instead tripped a lot and laughed. We’re not allowed to drink beers during training, so we drank cokes out of straws (they reuse the bottles here, so don’t drink off the rim if you enjoy pooping solids and not having weird bacterial infections) and had a grand old time. I hope to keep dancing here – seems like a great way to meet people – and who knows, maybe I’ll even get good at it.

Nobody Cleans Up The Roads Here – Watch Your Step!

It’s almost a game here – dodging the animal excrement, garbage, tar, noxious-looking spills, oil, and god-only-knows-what-else that blanket the roads here. There isn’t any government here, not in the US sense at least, and nobody has figured out a way to make money off of keeping the place clean. As a result, the country, especially near the roads, is filthy. It’s heartbreaking really – our training area is in the middle of a national forest, and there is garbage, plastic bottles and bags, trash, food, broken furniture, and more choking the roadsides, ditches, and forests of Honduras.

What’s more, it’s an unofficial policy here to just throw everything you don’t want out the windows of your car, or just onto the ground if you’re walking. I’ve seen teenage mothers teach their babies to throw trash out the window, then applaud and kiss them as if they’re not destroying the world around them! It’s maddening, because this country is so beautiful if not for the piles of trash EVERYWHERE. One of my projects here really needs to be finding a way to pick up trash, but I just can’t figure out how. A lot of volunteers have tried and failed, so please try to think of some ways for me to get people interested in cleaning up garbage and shoot them my way!

Machismo is For Girly Men

Here in Honduras, like anywhere in the world, there’s a prevailing method of action, a cultural “normal” way to behave and act. For the men here, that norm is machismo, a very masculine, show-offy, dominant way of acting, particularly around women. Think chivalry mixed with being a sleazeball, but strong like drug-resistant tuberculosis or superAIDS. Machismo is what makes men here honk at any women they drive past, throw catcalls like construction workers, and offer to help with everything they catch a girl doing for herself.

It’s not their fault – anyone who doesn’t act like they’re God’s gift to women really takes a hard time from their friends, getting their sexuality questioned, taking all sorts of mockery for their inability to be loud, abusive, and vulgar – but it’s really heavy and it makes me feel bad for the women sometimes. The female role in a machismo society is very submissive, and I know that it must be like sandpaper on the female volunteers here especially. Worse, it’s pretty strictly forbidden, and potentially dangerous, to react to these jerks, so I can already see some of the girls pulling a teakettle and just steaming up and up and up. I wonder who’ll burst first.

Here’s a good example of machismo in action: me and the girls are coming back from running in the mountains, and we’re in running attire – shorts and tight shirts, with some leg showing, especially my hairy beauties. In a conservative country like this, anything that shows leg is scandalous, and so the little running shorts the girls wear throws the local boys into a tizzie – scarcely a car passes that doesn’t honk, with the guys riding in back shouting “I’ll see you later” and “Hey baby” to show off their English. It’s mostly because of this that we stay off the main roads in the first place, but seriously, a bunch of sweaty tired people should never attract this much attention. If the girls react to this treatment in any way, even if simply to look at them, it’s like they’ve given the guys a big flashing “please come mess with me!” card with gold lettering and a star sticker.

Thus it falls to me to play the stupid gringo, wave, shout muchas gracias, and maybe blow them a kiss if I’m feeling sassy. This is like kryptonite to these guys – being thought of as gay, or as being sexual toward another man is one of the worst things one can do – and so it really just deflates their egos and they leave us be. I tend to save this for the ones who aren’t right by us though, since I always wonder when/if I’ll push it to far, and have to deal with a very angry, pride-stung Honduran. I don’t know how far to push things, so for now, we just keep our heads down, take the catcalls and gringo-baiting, and comfort ourselves with the fact that the vast majority of Hondurans aren’t 16 year old overcompensating idiots with dirty mouths. Still, the machismo culture is one of the things I like least about the people down here, and I have no idea why the women put up with it. Fear? A cultural sense of inferiority? Probably a little of both, but that’s just depressing.

Staying Healthy, Honduras Style

Staying healthy here is really a case-study in risk management. Every day you get confronted with choices as to which risks you want to take with your health, and so most of staying healthy consists of making good decisions about what to put your body through. “Should I eat this street vendor sandwich?” Probably not, if you enjoy pooping solids. (there’s a theme here!) “Will popping my disgustingly large blisters open me up to infections, or will letting them tear make things worse?” I’ll let you know – I drained them yesterday, and so far so good. Running in my boots was a mistake I won’t be repeating soon, and continuing to run, hike, and play futbol on my poor blistered feet just compounded that. Chalk that one up in the “poor decisions” category.

Still, in every instance you have to make a choice, yay or nay, as to whether you’re going to put your health at risk. Because of this, your health starts to become an ever-present concern. I catch myself wondering whether that scab on my finger isn’t healing because it’s infected (it isn’t) or because it’s been a day and half since I cut it open. I rub hand sanitizer on myself, my phone, everything. I worry about whether the water that gets in my mouth and eyes during my bucket shower contains the sneaky microorganisms that will give me a tapeworm, or leave me praying to the porcelain gods for mercy. I guess I shouldn’t use the word “worry” because it isn’t so much that as it is a wariness, a nagging thought to be careful, to weigh my options before jumping into any action.

In that sense at least, being healthy here in all about being proactive. You need to get that cut checked out, and to tell the PCMO (medical officer) about your diarrhea. Don’t let that rash “get better on it’s own” because it might be something serious or a harbinger of things to come. Really, being healthy here means being just paranoid enough; too much and you’re going to be unfunctional, too little and you’re going to get some sort of cool flesh/brain/heart-eating virus that kills you. Finding that happy medium is a daily test.

That said, there’s a lot you have to resign yourself to. Your food isn’t as sanitary as it would be in the US. It happens. Get over it and eat dinner. Your host mom probably didn’t wash her hands after she did laundry and shooed the dog who never gets bathed out of the kitchen either. You can try to change her habits if you really want to; good luck with that. Likewise, you’re taking showers out of a bucket, living in a world where the streets are never cleaned, the dust is pervasive, the cars which aren’t smogged are driven by drivers who might not be licensed or just drunk, and the water comes in rusty pipes double their expected life. You’re taking a lot of health risks just living here, and if you can’t reconcile your need for caution with the reality of life here, perhaps Honduras just isn’t your bag baby.

As I write this, an ant has just crawled into my beer, which I will continue drinking because beer is a scarce commodity here – it’s the first I’ve had since leaving DC, and I’m certainly not going to toss it out because one little ant wanted to get her fill. Likewise, I have zero problem eating food with bugs in it, or things that have fallen on a reasonably clean floor.

Case in point: the other night I was hanging out with X, and she offered me a “minimo” a tiny, 3” banana that grows wild out here. I peeled it to find a family of ants had been gnawing at one end, and after a few fruitless efforts at getting them to leave, I just mowed down the whole thing. Extra protein. Again, calculated risk. A few ants aren’t going to kill me, and it was the only ridiculously adorable tiny banana I was liable to get that day. Why should I worry about something that I can’t change? And that, my friends, is the secret of being healthy in Honduras: consider the costs and benefits of every action, and don’t sweat that which is beyond your control.

My “New” Phone

Last email I wrote about getting a phone here in Honduras. I also told you all to call me if you got bored, which nobody did, which leads me to conclude that you all hate me. Seriously though, it’s 011 504 9576 2348 if you’d like to call me – it costs me nothing to receive calls, and though I have no idea what it costs to call from the states, it’s only 4 lempira (about 20 cents) a minute to call you all from here, and I can’t imagine it’s that much worse in reverse. Otherwise, skype call me! I’d love to hear from any of you, especially if you’re drunk at 4 am. I’ll be getting up for school anyhow.

Switching gears; my phone is pretty neat. In a lot of ways, Honduras is easily a half-century or more behind the US in terms of technology. They kinda-sorta have landlines, but they’re unreliable, expensive, and never really reached market saturation. Cable TV exists, but only if you’re rich and in the right parts of town. Cars are at least 30 years behind, except for a few luxury models that the rich folk drive around. (another theme developing here!) The roads are narrow and occasionally lit, and there’s next to nothing in terms of traffic lights or stop signs, even in very well-traveled areas. Outside of Teguz, the capital, I have yet to see a working stop light. They use traffic cops here by the hundreds, organizing and controlling the flow of vehicles, ala USA circa 1920 or so. My house gets water 2 time a week from an outside tap, the toilet flushes with a bucket, and the power drops out at regular intervals. Honduras has a definite infrastructure problem.

However, their cell networks and phones are very similar to ours – in some ways better. My $21 pay-as-you-go Nokia is virtually identical to my first indestructible phone back in high school, and it’s fast, intuitive, and the battery lasts days. It’s been 4 days since I changed it, and it’s at 80% battery. It turns on or off in a few seconds, does everything I ask of it, and if experience serves me well, I should probably be able to play hacky-sack with it for a few months with nary a concern. I’ve yet to go below 3 of 5 bars or drop a call, despite living in a country that is almost entirely mountains. The cell service here is solid, and you can find almost any phone you could imagine, if you’re willing to haggle with the right street vendor. It’s no iphone, and I’m certainly not going to trade internet access, music, games, a full calendar, contacts, and a million other features for this little brick with a flashlight built in, but as a phone and a distraction to thieves, this Nokia takes the cake. Talking on my phone, I forget the broken infrastructure and marvel at how quickly this technology is transforming the way Hondurans live and do business.

Simply put, Honduras is a prime example of a free market at work. There are few laws governing what can or cannot be done, and even less effective regulation. One upshot to this system is that the technologies that flourish are strictly those that have proven their worth to the populace – the cheapest, easiest, most useful things are the only ones that people here are going to save their meager earnings to buy. Thus cell phones have exploded, reaching all corners of the country, companies fighting each other for customers, with towers in every neighborhood. (if cell towers cause cancer, these people will find out really soon – there are towers in schools, on houses, in playgrounds; everywhere there is space and an open range, someone has a cell repeater up.) It’s all because of how useful cell phones are, and how much having one (or not) can impact your life.

Thus, without mandates, government money, or regulation, a very tight network of cell towers have blanketed the nation, and cells are cheaper then most else out here. This isn’t to say that free markets are all good – certainly Honduras has ample evidence and then some of the failings of a society run by capital – but in this instance, I feel like the executives of AT&T, Verizon, and all the rest of the US cell carriers ought to be dragged down here to see how real competition works.

Going to the Market

Last Wednesday part of our training class, myself included, headed into Teguz to practice negotiating and navigating our way through the capital city. It was a bit scary, since we’re none-too-sure of our Spanish skills, and frankly, because the Peace Corps wanted it to be scary. They gave us a destination, a bit of cash, and basically said “meet you there.” This was our first real test of our seriousness and ability to survive on our own.

Early in the am, I caught the bus in front of my house with about 17-20 other volunteers, which was in itself pretty hilarious. Bunch of gringos swarming the daily bus to Tegucigalpa definitely raised some eyebrows, but it also kept us safe. Who wants to rob someone who obviously brought a swarm of friends? More to the point, the Peace Corps didn’t want to lose anyone, so we were all assigned groups – to ride together for one, and to keep an eye on each other for two. My group of 3 did just fine, caught a cab, negotiated a fare, and took the 16 block ride to the market Zonal Belin for just over 4 bucks. That’s total, not individual fare! (anyone who’s been ripped off by a cabbie stateside, I’m sorry, but nyah nyah!)

After a harrowing ride of prayer and blind merging, we disembarked into a scene right out of Indiana Jones. Narrow, dirty streets, open air stands, vendors carrying goods from all over and yelling out prices, people pushing, and everywhere the smells and sights and sounds of a bustling marketplace. Like any good Americans, we strode into the supermarket.

To be fair, we were supposed to meet Victor, our facilitator, there, but it makes the image better. The “supermecado” here is just like the ones there, except it blasts old American tunes (they really love Air Supply, Bob Marley, and Hotel California by the Eagles) and there is a LOT smaller selection. For most items, you get the dominant brand (Coke, Crest, Betty Crocker) and one, maybe two generic alternatives. There’s not fruit or vegetables that aren’t tropical, and nothing that isn’t in season. Makes you a bit wistful for the USA, especially if you’re craving blueberries.

The pricing is kinda weird – some items, like soap, clipboards, toothpaste, are cheap as dirt, a buck or so if you’re buying generic – but some others, like American candy, are overpriced compared to back home. Gum is well over a buck a pack, same for skittles, M&Ms, and the like. It’s weird to pay the same amount for an 8-pack of batteries and a pack of trident.

After price matching at the supermercado, we run across traffic to the open-air market. Here the fun part begins – bartering, shouting, playing with the produce, jumping puddles, dodging cars and carts and donkeys, watching for pickpockets, getting lost in dead ends, choking on diesel, haggling with street vendors, buying pineapple out of the bed of a truck, and sticks of cinnamon from an old woman with a snaggletooth. If you ignore the little displays of cell phones and turn a blind eye to the radios and remote controls, it could be 100 years ago in America, or any dirty marketplace in the world today.

I’m in love with the place, and I spend 37 lempira (2 bucks) on 4 apples, 6 oranges, 6 bananas and another 6 on the day’s paper. It’s fantastic, and I’m pretty good at bargaining with the locals. It goes a bit like this – you find an item you want, wander up to the merchant, and ask the price. When they tell you, you grimace, bite your lip, and tell them it’s a bit more then you wanted to pay. Then you name your price, preferably something about 70% of what they told you originally. They’ll refuse, and you’ll tell them that you only want to pay the 70% price again, this time loud enough for the vendor in the next stall over to hear. If the first vendor is smart, he or she will offer you a price somewhere in the range of 80% of the original price. If he isn’t; the second vendor probably will, and presto, you’ve got your item at a great price. Buy it, and feel smug.

If neither is willing to meet the price you name, just thank them and walk – there’s someone in the market with a better price if you just keep looking, and chances are they’re near the middle. Look for vendors in bad locations – dead ends, corners, places that don’t get a lot of foot traffic. They’ll happily barter down, and you can find all sorts of cool stuff for next to nothing.

I could have spent all day there, but around 11:30 we left to visit the market, fought with another taxi driver (they add a gringo tax to all fares here – general rule, take 20 Lempira off and see if they’ll still take you) and rode to the Peace Corps home office. We got a quick tour of what might as well have been an embassy in a warzone, all barbed wire and barred windows, with a 10 foot wall around.

After the look-around, we boarded Peace Corps vehicles and rode to Burger King. It was really funny actually – the BK here was pretty much identical to the others I’ve been to – nicer actually then some I’ve seen. The food was identical, the prices too! It actually cost more for a greasy hamburger then it did for my cabfare and busfare for the day. Still, it was a taste of home, and a nice change from the plato tipico – beans, rice, and tortillas – that make up the day-to-day eating around here.  After lunch, all that remained was a short jaunt back to town, and we slipped right back into the daily routine as if we’d never left.

Getting Ruined at Futbol

On Saturday, classes get out around noon, and we had the bright idea of heading down to the local futbol field (that’s soccer for you yanks) to see if we could play with the locals, or just start a pickup game of our own. As it turned out, the regulars all wanted to play with us silly Americans, and so by the time we’d ridden the bus down to Los Canyadas to save ourselves a few miles walking, we were greeted by about 12 of teenage and early-20s guys and a few local girls.

We decided to play EEUU versus Honduras, and so the we all knew we were in for an uphill struggle – these guys pretty much play from 3-4 pm until dark every day – but at the same time it wasn’t malicious. We all just wanted to have a good time, and the game seemed a good way for everyone to meet up and have some fun. We started out really disorganized, playing what my dad, my old coach, used to call “cluster ball.” That means that the USA guys and girls buzzed around the ball like a bunch of bees, pulling out of positions, falling over each other, and generally playing a lot of bad soccer.

We got down in the scoreboards really fast, giving up 5 goals to none in the first half. Honestly, it was pretty pathetic, but we also had a goalie who didn’t block a single shot. What blocked shots we did manage came from some of the defenders, like myself, who put our bodies between the ball and the goal. At the half, a few of the guys were really demoralized and took off to visit the internet cafes and get food, so that left 10 of us American and one Honduran versus the other 11 Hondurans. Our subs had really been our saving grace the first half, and so before we got back on the pitch we set firm positions, and I took command of the defense.

Three girls, Shannon, Kathrine, Lindsey, and myself played a diamond D, with the girls playing man-defense and myself roaming the backfield to pick up runners, throw a few tackles, and double team their stars. It actually worked great, and our offense organized themselves as well – 2 guys running the sidelines and dropping balls to Randy, Bert, and our Honduran player. We got two goals to their none, and the second half ran about 15 minutes longer then the first. Eventually, as it was pushing on toward dusk Danny, one of the Honduran guys, blasted a fantastic shot into the upper corner of our net, and we called the game at that. 6-2 Honduras over EEUU, but nothing but smiles, high-fives, and laughter all around. They say one of the most important goals of the Peace Corps is culture sharing, and I think we accomplished this admirably. If everything else we do goes half this well, we’ll do fantastically out here.

Road Tripping Honduran Style

So that brings me to Sunday. Our second assignment has been to go and visit volunteers at their sites across Honduras, to get a feel for how people work, and to meet our future coworkers. Plus, it goes kinda unsaid that we all need a change of scene and a break. I was assigned to a guy named Jon, an engineer out in Choluteca, the 4th-largest city in Honduras, located 130 km south of the capital. It’s a big site for the Peace Corps, and so I’m in good company – 6 other volunteers are taking the same or similar routes to their volunteers.

After packing my bag with a change of clothes, plenty of socks and underwear, my laptop, and a few toiletries, I arranged with Shannon, Reggie, and Kathrine to ride together to Teguz. We hit the terminal around 9:45am, and from there S, R, and I took a taxi (another wild ride) to the Mi Esperanza bus terminal on the south side of the city. Pretty uneventful overall, until we hit the terminal and bus atendantes (fare collectors, helpers, busboys, kinda all-around labor types) swarmed us, grabbed at our bags, and all but kidnapped us into the various terminals of each bus company. It was pretty wild. Luckily for us, we managed to regroup and push our way into the nearest doorway. As it turned out, it was one of the terminals, and so we just bought tickets there on an 11:15 bus to Choluteca. A whopping 82 Lempira (4 bucks 25 cents or so) and we had our tickets.

I slipped across the street, leaving my bag with the girls, and went into a pulperia to buy a few drinks and some gum for the trip. As it turned out, I found a little shopkeeper who spoke passable English, not that he let me in on that until after I’d stumbled through the entire exchange in Spanish. Still, scared the crap out of me when he came up behind me as I was leaving to say “have a nice trip.” It was just weird to hear a voice in English, especially there. We talked a bit – he’d lived in the states for a while before returning, which may or may not have meant that he had been there illegally, which isn’t exactly uncommon here. Either way, it was a weird little exchange.

Loaded up with Fresca, Aguazul water, and chicle (27 L for the lot, for you keeping track at home) I got back to the terminal and swapped stories with Shannon and Reggie until the bus got there. Reggie has a great life story, but that’s not for here. Anyhow, we boarded the bus, took seats near the middle (statistically, it’s the safest spot) and read books or napped or looked out the windows as our long, hot, journey began. Met a doctor seated across from me; he was studying abdominal/intestinal medicine, and we talked about parasites and explosive diarrhea in Spanish. Chalk him up to the growing group of people who laugh and tell me how sick I’m going to get.

After a bit he passed out, the girls were in their books, and I couldn’t stop staring out the windows. It’s like another world, different even from the Honduras I’m just getting used to. It’s almost like Southern California in the south, all chapparel, stunted trees, and dry brush as the hills roll away from the 2-lane highway. What makes it different and unusual is that the familiar scene is interspersed with slash-and-burn farms, piles of garbage, starving dogs, broken down cars, tiny pueblos with rocky fields, and poor kids, adults, men, women, and children scraping a living out of the unforgiving land.  At every stop I bought something – a mango, a sandwich, a bag of water. I had to: it’s nothing to me, but to these people it’s the difference between living and dying, eating and going to bed empty.

I couldn’t help myself from asking “is this it? Is this life? Is this all there is? A fight for survival, a daily struggle to eat, to live to do it again tomorrow? Have I been stupid, or just naïve, to deny this fundamental truth?” Life is so simple when you have nothing at all. You eat, or you don’t. You drink, or you go thirsty. You fall in love, have kids, and die, and you fight every day to stay alive for the next. One day you don’t, and that’s it. Everything else is just gravy, the condiments of life. We delude ourselves into thinking we need this, or we can’t live without that, but these people put the lie to all that. We’re really just animals who think, and sometimes I question whether the whole thinking thing was such a great idea. I alternated reading Kerouac and gawking at the world flashing by as our driver swerved lanes, passing cars, trucks, buses, honked and cut the wheel, missed oncoming traffic by mere feet, and caused a ruckus.

I sweat a lot – it’s easily 95, and there’s no shade. The air coming in the windows is a furnace, and the smells of the world; shit, food, smoke, cigarettes, coffee, diesel, all flood in. I’m in love. I’m giddy. I’m tingling with the sheer pressure of life pushing against me; I can feel it all the way down into my soul, into every fiber of my being, into my very essence. This is how I was supposed to live – traveling, looking for truth, experiencing that which I’ve never before.

We hit Choluteca a bit after 3, hopped out, grabbed our bags, and were left coughing fumes in the furnace of the afternoon. A few people waiting for the bus looked at us, a few taxis honked and waved. Otherwise, we were just a few travelers in a city that didn’t care. Again, the tingling feeling, the rush. I found a shady tree to sit under and called Jon. He said that he and the other volunteers were waiting for us at Wendy’s down the road, and with him walking one way, and us the other, we met up rather quickly. Walking together now, we did the whole pleasantries thing, and made it to Wendy’s in a few minutes.

I kept marveling at how run-down yet familiar the town looks – like a dystopian Fresno, or perhaps Bakersfield. There’s a lot of one-story buildings, roads with potholes, tired-looking trees, rough, dirty, broken everything. At the same time, it’s easily recognizable as a town, though it looks deceivingly small, you’ve got all the normal parts of town that we do in the states; strip mall, fast food joints, a little legal district, a cathedral, a police station. It’s definitely a place I feel confidently at home in – much more then in Teguz, where it’s all overwhelming, or in Santa Lucia, where there’s nothing remotely like home.

A note on Wendy’s: there’s a lot of reasons not to buy fast food. It’s greasy, none-too-tasty, and more expensive then a lot of things here. Normally, there’s no good reason to buy it, which is why I shied away from it whenever possible back home. However here in Honduras (and really, to travelers everywhere) it has a few distinct advantages, namely that it’s (relatively) clean, unlikely to give you nasty parasites or germies, and you can rely on it to taste about the same wherever you go. Plus, here they actually try – since American fast food joints are more expensive then pretty much any lunch or dinner place, they’re actually really clean, well-staffed, and fast. It’s kinda funny to me that the Wendy’s we visited here is cleaner and the food better then any I’ve ever visited in my life. Just another Honduras mystery, I guess.

Not much left to tell here, at least not in this story. We hit our destination, met our volunteers, made new friends, talked, ate, and joked, and then went our separate ways. In my next message (hopefully sometime next week) I’ll write about the rest of this trip, since it’s turning out great. For the time being, this was my story, and I’m sticking to it. Feel free to call me whenever, write me letters, send me sacks of bricks or candy. I miss all your smiling faces, but this was and is the best thing I’ve ever done.

K over and out.

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