It is my first night in Tegucigalpa and I’m at the Hyatt Place hotel. I’m staying here, but I don’t belong here.
The ceilings are too high. The lobby is too well appointed. The clerks all speak English and are super polite and know my name. Everything smells of lilacs or poinsettias or whatever. I smell like vinegar.
My room is massive. The shower pressure is just right and there’s plenty of hot water. The king bed doesn’t creak when I lie on it. It’s the first I’ve slept on that wasn’t a twin in three weeks. For breakfast they serve delicious omelets and fruits and cheeses and cakes.
This was meant to be my respite from the hostel life, but it doesn’t feel quite right. This is a place for politicians and business executives and socialites to eat caviar and plot their takeover of the world. Not the place for a grizzled, dressed down solo traveler.
While on the road, there is a certain comfort in being uncomfortable. The life of a backpacker (or “mochilero” in this corner of the world) is riddled with such contradiction.
My second night in the Honduran capital I am having beers with an old friend on the terrace of the Hyatt place by the rooftop pool. As we leave she motions over my shoulder and tells me to make note of a woman sitting at the bar. In the elevator she makes an impish grin and tells me the woman is a Supreme Court judge, and that she recently forgot how many laws are in the Honduran constitution when asked during an interview.
A few days later I leave behind the classiness of the Hyatt and its powerful but apparently dimwitted clientele. As I make my exit the doorman says “Goodbye Mister Jack”
I am sitting on a bench in the central park of Santa Barbara. I’ve been waiting to meet with Janary’s godfather, Roy, for over an hour. Sweat clings to my body after the five hour bus ride from Tegucigalpa. As I sit, the blazing sun is almost as piercing as the dozens of eyes fixed my way. I don’t mind. I prefer this existence to that of the Hyatt.
A soldier is among the eyes staring me down from across the park. I meet his gaze. He begins to meander his way through the fountains and gardens. He is decked out in green military attire, packing a heavy duty firearm and a long, thick knife at his hip. He looks to be my age. His chiseled, clean-shaven face forms into a wry smile as he approaches me.
He extends a hand. I’m thinking he wants to have a look at my passport, but he is just greeting me. I grip his firm handshake. Shaking hands has its roots in a salutation which signifies that both people are not carrying weapons. He certainly is. I don’t know much about guns, just that his is big, and that he could mow me down and cut me to pieces if he wanted to. I feel tense even as he calls me “friend” and makes small talk. He asks me about the current state of American politics. “Ya tu sabes” I tell him (“you already know”). He tells me to be careful around here before going about his business.
Later in that same park a woman walks over to me. I tell her who I’m waiting for, she says she knows Roy and will help me connect with him. We go to a café and I give him a call with her phone. Minutes later Roy arrives in his truck. As we leave Santa Barbara he tells me he has no idea who that woman was.
I am following Roy up the mountainside in the small community of Tule. A mist lingers over us as we make our way up the steep, rocky path. It is six o’clock in the morning and I have barely slept. Roy snored all night in the bed next to me, is aware of it, and apologized for it when we woke up some thirty minutes ago. I tell him there’s nothing to be sorry for, that I am used to not sleeping while traveling, and that the rich, decadent coffee we had with breakfast was helping.
Our coffee that morning was paired with yummy corn tamales and avocado. I enjoy every bite. I hesitate when I notice the meat in the middle of the tamale, wary that the pork here especially is not always safe to eat. In the end I finish the entire meal, and make sure to tell my host, Bienvenida, how delicious it was. The immune system of a mochilero is a sword sharpened only by the whetstone that is a fluid and sometimes questionable diet.
As we walk Roy greets people tending to their garden or cooking breakfast in their outdoor stoves. He smiles and waves at kids, shakes hands and exchanges words with the men leaving for their work in the fields. He stops to pick up plastic bottles lying on the sides of the dirt path which winds through the community. A few times he swings by people’s homes, whom are always elated to have him interrupt whatever they are doing.
He is a star here as one of the leaders of Vecinos Honduras, the organization I am blessed to be working with while here. It’s the first time I’ve seen Roy in eight years, but nothing about him has changed. More on his story in a later post.
It is only 9am and I’ve already seen a clay stove get completely dismantled; now I am watching a new one getting built in its place. A group of three women are working with meticulous technical prowess. They carefully put metal rods and stones in place before molding it all together with adobe and clay that they got from the yard. Looking on are women from around the community, as well as all their children. Roy gathered them here to learn how to make an efficient stove for their homes.
He tells me this is one of the philosophies of Vecinos Honduras. Roy calls upon an old adage to explain:
“Give a man a fish….Teach a man how to fish…”
(You know how it goes)
The final product is starting to take shape. What strikes me is that these women, led by Bienvenida, are not piecing together this stove for themselves. It is for the older woman outside, currently preparing lunch for us around a small outdoor oven. This is another philosophy that Roy swears by…”lend a hand within the community and it all comes back around”.
Bienvenida and others wash off their clay-ridden hands for lunch. As we bow our heads in prayer I have a moment of clarity, of sheer happiness to be spending time with such wonderful and interesting and humble company.
We nibble on tortillas, beans, eggs, and cheese, and sip coffee, Bienvenida tells me she has now built five stoves with her two hands. She tells me how her husband Angel gets up at 4am every day, walks two hours, and works for eight hours in the fields under the beating sun. She says he works hard, and that she enjoys doing her part to help the community and her family.
I laugh at past Jack, lying on his king sized bed at the Hyatt Place hotel with all the comforts of Wifi and air conditioning and room service. This is where I want to be. These are the people I want to be spending time with.
I am waist deep in an endless, crystal clear sea on an island in the Caribbean. I dunk my head into the cool and refreshing water, teeming with colorful fish. The rum punch in my hand now tastes a bit salty.
Janary snaps a selfie nearby. I look down at the white sand below me. The saltwater is smoothing the calices littered on my feet, washing away the grime built up under my nails, soothing my aching shoulders from lugging my bags up and down the mountain side, essentially ridding my body of its mochilero-ness.
Dozens of gringos nearby are also wading in while sipping on tropical drinks. A heavily tattooed American does a front flip into the water, pops up and bellows an unsurprisingly vulgar line to his onlooking group.
“Hope I didn’t get any fish up my pee hole”
Days before I was a mountain creature, a few days from now I will be once again. For now I am wasting away on an island in the Caribbean. Janary earned an all-inclusive trip to a resort in Roatan and invited me along as her +1. It was an offer too good to pass up. So I put my work with Vecinos on hold, tumbled down the mountainside on a tuk-tuk, and made the long trek back to Tegucigalpa.
Our days in Roatan are filled with lavish luxury. Lying on the beach. Fruity alcoholic beverages. Swimming with fishes. Live music. All-you-can-eat buffets (I haven’t eaten this much in weeks; my belly aches).
I’m having a margarita and listening to the black keyboardist in the resort as he sings some Frank Sinatra. He has a magnificent voice that makes my spine tingle, and is wearing sunglasses despite it being night time. The essence of cool. A few tequilas in, Janary decides to hop on stage and join him. She, too, has a lovely voice, hitting every note, singing of love and other things in Spanish.
When she finishes, the classy black man on the keyboard looks at me and speaks up in a grizzly voice. “She sings beautifully; I can see why you fell in love with her”. I steal a glance at her and we both laugh.
Yeah, I don’t really belong here either, though I could really get used to this. In a few days I’ll be back on the trail. It’s funny, you know, the life of a mochilero. You put your whole life in a bag, step out of the door, and then you just never really know what’s going to happen.
The final morning in Roatan Janary is working in the resort lobby for a client who is having difficulty getting through customs in Spain. I am sitting on a hammock on the balcony of our room reading my book. Nearby I spot an exotic bird meandering through the gardens below. I smile and give him a head nod, from one waywardly bird to another.
Onward my brethren.