Sunday, July 20, 2014

Paul Theroux wrote the most apt descriptions of Central America in his 1979 book “The Patagonian Express”, most all of which still hold true today, especially this line that seems to sum it up pretty curtly: “El Salvador deserves to be serene but it is not.”

I am reminded of this sifting through the daily editorials and reports on the flood of Central American children coming through the border (overwhelmingly Honduran). A similar gut feeling that sat in my stomach reading Theroux’s words return to me when I read a Chicago Tribune editorial that begs the question, “When has there not been violence and poverty in Central America?”

Amidst these countries of undeveloped cloud forests, unscathed jungles and protected coral reefs is a lot of loss. Loss that I don’t know if people ever recover from. 

Traveling in Central America in general was kind of like my trip to Guasale, the border town I had to go through on my way to Nicaragua. The travel guide warned that one didn’t want to spend much time in Guasale but my friends and I had just endured a sweaty bus ride through southern Honduras that lasted five hours too long and we were hungry. We found a comedor (or you know, someone’s house) which sold us lunch and so we ended up staying to eat a two dollar meal. The cook’s three year old son talked to us in between his Dora episodes and chickens pecked at the ground by our feet and there, we ended up eating the best meal of our trip. 

Accordingly, travel in Central America is rarely recommended (as my Dad let me know, Honduras wound up on the travel advisory section of the paper quite often during my year there) but it is surprisingly delightful where you least expect it.

El Salvador has its surfers, Nicaragua has its buzz (coined the new “Costa Rica”) and Guatemala its language learners, which left Honduras to me.

Rarely did I meet another gringo and if I did then most likely we had mutual contacts. Mostly I was packed shoulder to shoulder on buses with locals. On one bus ride from Tegucigalpa to where I lived in Honduras, a man selling rosquillas sat down next to me. He knew a little bit of English (“I live eight years in States – two kids there”). After spending hours on buses, I welcomed conversation from people I probably should have best avoided. He, for example, confessed that two of his years in the States were spent in prison.

He moved on from me, walking toward the front of the bus to sell his cornbread biscuits that are somehow a delicacy in Central America. By the time he made it back, I had a new woman sitting next to me, and he was out of his rosquillas. “Gracias a Dios, se acabó,” he said. Thank God his work for the day was done, he sighed, wiping his hands.

The lady turned to me, “Primero, Dios. Despues, nosotros.” I laughed, perhaps one of the first times I understood something clever in Spanish and perhaps because it’s a wonderful statement all the same. Thank God first, she joked, then thank us.

I really wonder if in my lifetime I'll see Honduras rise up from its third world barriers. As Katherine Boo writes in Behind the Beautiful Foreversher novel about an Indian family living in a Mumbai slum, "If a house is crooked and crumbling, and the land on which it sits uneven, is it possible to make anything lie straight?" Perhaps pessimistic but I don't think it was written to be discouraging; instead to help put things in perspective, inspire some compassion, to say one should have a little sympathy for these children because so much is stacked against them from the start. And from what I've seen in Honduras, there are people down there who are not discouraged by a shaky foundation, who think building what you can even if it cannot endure the rainy season is better than giving up, calling it a day and saying a banana leaf will do.

If things change for our neighbors south of the border, which I hope they do, I suppose God is to thank. And next, the people who made that change happen. 

Pictured above: Copan Ruinas, Honduras; Volcan Pacaya, Guatemala; Ometepe, Nicaragua; Cayos Cochinos, Honduras; El Zonte, El Salvador

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