Mary Beth Writes

 In this edition from "Back in the Stacks" we read part of my recap of a MayaWorks side-trip to Honduras.  This was written March 13, 2005. 


 Buenas Dias, Amigas y Amigos!

 Phyllis and I (we're two of seven MW board members) flew from O'Hare to Guatemala on Saturday, Feb. 26. There was a delay in Dallas so we didn't arrive in GU City until 9 PM. After that was another hour riding in the back of a van, through a dark night, on the twisty highway to Antigua. There's nothing like beginning a good adventure on a dark and winding road, is there...?

When we finally arrived in Antigua -- at 10:30PM -- the streets were full of people and families. Phyllis asked what going on. The woman who'd driven us answered, "Jesus came out from the City today."

What she meant was that Antigua had hosted an evening Procession where a highly venerated statue of Jesus had been brought from a big church in Guatemala City, to the procession through the streets of Antigua.

But I loved that. "Jesus came out from the City today."

We collapsed into the very old, very beautiful Spanish Colonial hotel, the Don Rodrigo. We were in bed by midnight and I slept fairly well which was to be how I slept every night thereafter. Fairly well. Always content, no angst, but usually awake several hours per night.

I'd lie there, listen to trucks on cobblestones, roosters screeching awake at dawn, breezes sighing past shutters, birds singing in courtyards. Once I heard a man on the other side of the wall fart. That same man also peed for an astonishingly long period of time. Made me curious the next morning, at the ever so civilized portico breakfasting area of the Don Rodrigo, wondering who my large-living caballero neighbor was.

It was so cool to get up that first morning to Kathleen Morkert and the rest of the staff and board. What a kick to wake up 4000 miles from home to flowers blooming everywhere, birds singing, handsome people murmuring Buenas Dias -- and there, right in front of you, is one of the dearest friends of your life. This is to me the classic image of a post-death heaven.  It's all warm, gorgeous, and tropical - and suddenly there are people you love.

Someone should have told me back when I was a Fundamentalist kid scared of going to hell - that I could get to heaven on a connecting flight out of Chicago.

Some of us had contracted to go on a 3-day tour together so Thursday morning those of us going on the mini-tour to Honduras were in The Big White Touring Van by 8. Travelers were me, Kathleen, Sarah, Trudy, Phyllis, and Alfonso our Tour Guide. The six of us would be together the next three days.

Alfonso jokes that he is an "Everythingologist." He's educated, reads lots, can answer most questions and will half-answer the rest. (I know this kind of man.)

We drove from Antigua to Copan, Honduras by driving through the long, dry valley on the west side of seriously tall mountains! The mountains keep out rain from the Caribbean, making the area hot and stunningly dry. The road we took that first day was two lanes of very good highway; bumper-to-bumper with trucks grinding up the mountains and careening back down.

Did I say the mountains were high? Sheesh.

Yes, there were occasional moments of MB’s terror. Where do Central American drivers learn to pass each other while traffic is oncoming while barreling down a hairpin mountain road?

The most astoundingly good thing was the stunning vistas.

We'd be zipping along the highway, sometimes with guard rails, sometimes without. We were WAY up there. We'd curve around the mountain, and vavoom-poof --- the view would open to 30 miles of topography just falling away before our eyes. Sun shining through peaks of the long mountain range, lighting and shading great swaths of the valley below. The mountains were blue, purple, often shawled with mist. Some valleys and ravines were crowded with wild-blooming Calla lilies.

This is how the farmers fence their farms. BIG bougainvilla shrubs are everywhere. The people chop limbs of it that are 5 to 7 feet long, stick these limbs into the ground every five to ten feet, strap barbed wire from one stuck-in-the-dirt-branch to the next. The whole thing looks crude and organic. But get this -- the branches are not dead. They grow into new bougainvilla shrubs -  the fence grows its own roots.

By early spring the fences are abloom in pink! You could see down into the long valleys, farm fields squared off in pink.

Coffee grows in these mountains but the sun is too hot for coffee bushes, so shade trees are planted over them. This time of the year those trees are popping with orange flowers. In some areas the sides of the mountains were orange.

Oh Glory Be. Coffee-growing country. Sometimes a person can smell the coffee as one zips along.

AlthoughIn other places they ferment the coffee - which smells like open house at the dirty diaper factory.

The first day we ate lunch in a Comidora along the edge of the highway. A Comidora is the Central American response to "fast food." This one was a couple tables behind an open kitchen, situated about ten eet off the highway in a tiny hamlet.

The open kitchen is just that -- open. The place has some (turquoise-painted) cement block walls. Enough to hold up a roof over the whole shebang, not enough to make formal doors and windows necessary. The kitchen is not much more than a bunch of rough tables, one super-hot wood fire grill, and three women doing various kitchen things. There are two big plastic dishpans of raw marinating meat. You say if you want pork or beef. Try to not look at the meat; looks like a prop for a slasher movie.

There was a chicken wandering around, which we thought was funny. They didn't ask us if we wanted chicken. Does the chicken pay them off for this?

Anyway, in ten minutes you are eating grilled strips of mouthwatering meat with still-warm corn tortillas, rice with flecks of carrots and chayote squash in it, fried platenos, black beans, and a cold can of beer from the tienda across the highway. It's about 90 degrees and humid but you are sitting, birds are chirping in the trees right next to you, down the hill you can see a small river tootling past. The sun is shining and you are far from home, accompanied by women you really like and a very nice man who knows the answer to most of the questions you can think to ask.  Forget the Big Red Boat. This was Vacation Mode.

Crossing the border from Guatemala to Honduras was like falling into a Harrison Ford movie. What was that one with Kathleen Turner, where they had to find a treasure hidden in a cave somewhere in a jungle? That one.

The border town was, to put it mildly, a scurrilous place. We had to take our passports to the officials at the window. Among the hundreds of folks lounging about, we seemed to be just about the only women, and definitely the only North Americans. Motley crews of desperadoes leaned against the dirty wall of the building, against the railing along the back of it, squatted next to a filthy table, scuffed back and forth across the dusty parking lot to the seedy looking comidoras (those tiny food places) and bars.

It was great. This is a border crossing used almost exclusively by truck drivers. While waiting in line I glanced up at the hand-painted wooden sign. Next to it was a hanging, broken, ceramic lightbulb fixture. The electric wires to it were held together with packing tape.

 Try to not go there when they turn on that light. That would be my advice.

That town was filled with trash. There is a lot of this in Central America. There are places along the highway where trash completely litters the sides of the road for 20 feet out on either side. This is not everywhere, but it is more common that you'd think. The combination of long, long walks (many people are too poor to even take a chicken bus), ubiquitous black plastic shopping bags, fruit sold in plastic bags, and all drinkable water coming in plastic bottles, makes for amazing scenes of plastic trash. Don't expect pristine landscapes.

The world is not simple out there.

 The second day we ate at La Casa Grande, tucked away in a town so obscure I can't remember where we were at all. Somewhere in Honduras.

I don't know how Luis the Van Driver got us to our Honduran Shangri-La. The streets were just about wide enough for one car, the cobblestones were horrendous, the pitch of the hills close to vertical. Luis would talk to pedestrians who were on the sidewalk - about 3 feet from his window.

 Finally we ended up at the place, climbed out, walked into a door -- and were in a big, cool, shady portico that encircled a decrepit courtyard garden. Tables were tucked under a high overhead timber and tile roof. European frescoes were painted into the plaster of the walls. One wall was tangerine decorated with arches of gold. It was a Fellini movie. Ancient, gorgeous, seedy.

The absolutely stunning woman who owned the place walked over to us.

I am an old, straight woman -- even I fell a little in love!

 The women was probably somewhere in her 40's, but wow, does she wears it different than I ever did. Tight jeans, voluptuous body, fuchsia blouse tied at her waist. Dark wavy hair pulled back from her gorgeous face. Big brown eyes filled with good humor. Lots of makeup, red lips.

I was kind of glad Len wasn't with us for that lunch. I'm not sure he would have followed me back out of Honduras.

 The choices were beef and pork again. Delicious food. For dessert we ate a pineapple grown in the neighborhood and it was as mild and sweet as remembered sin.

Later that day we visited the Flora de Copan cigar factory in Santa Rosa de Copan, Honduras.

Cigars are not something I've spent a lot of time in my life wondering about. Now that I have seen the process, I am, well, respectful. Cigars are insanely labor-intensive.

Eight hundred people work at the factory and none of the equipment looked less than 75 years old. Their printing press for their labels is that same one my dad bought second-hand before WWII.

Tobacco is bought from farmers when it's six months old. At that point workers put it to age in lattice-sided bins about as big as minivans. It's aged for 2 to 6 years.

 That room was as big as a football field and the air in it was toxic. Tobacco isn't ammonia and it doesn't smell like ammonia - but you know that sensation of ammonia close to your nose? The fumes eat your nasal passages. The tobacco-aging room was like that. There were at least a half dozen guys working in there.

People who wrap tobacco leaves into cigars are called "buncheros." This was the only job we saw that included both men and women. Most everything else seemed segregated by gender, generally a sign that wages are also segregated by gender.

Buncheros are paid according to how many cigars they roll, they must make at least 200 cigars per day. Some folks make 400 per day, that's 1 per minute.

 We toured for 45 minutes. Not a one of us smoke cigars, not a one of us was bored, there's no "gift shop" that was open at the end. (Otherwise, Brent, I would have bought you one.)

The cigar factory was time travel. This is how our grandparents and great-grandparents worked in factories. Tedious, hard on the back, carpel tunnel city, often dangerous (knives and presses all around), often toxic. Remember studying the "history of trade unions"?  A walk through the cigar factory was a living, eye-watering, image-rich lesson in what that was all about.


If I can find more from my trip to Copan in Honduras, I will post it another day. 



I'm so glad you posted this. I think about our Honduran trip occasionally because I bought my Jesus statue there.

I wanted to add that I learned my great-grandfather worked in a cigar factory in Detroit. Detroit was a big place for cigar making. Who knew?

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