Today wasn’t bad at all. My boss has assigned me to a few more things and now I’m feeling like my plate is full, which is nice. Jim and I raised our walks to 3 miles today, and we spent most of our walk talking about our upcoming trip down into the Baja. Some time soon I’ll post some details about our plans. When I got home I grilled myself dinner and then worked on my new photo slideshow webpage since I neglected it all last week. I need to do a little Japanese studying tonight before bed too.
Jean and I are getting excited about Vegas. I want to go see an IMAX movie at the Luxor and I’d like to finally get down to Fremont Street to see “The Experience” light show one night. I also plan on taking Jean over to the Stratosphere so we can ride one of the things on top of the hotel – Kenny and I rode the coaster up there back in March 2002.
Even though it’s been three weeks since I got back to the US, I still feel like I needed to write about what Dave and I actually did down in Central America. I know the postings have been kinda long, but at least you could just skip them if it was too much reading. This will be my last post about the trip and then I’ll start posting about current things again.
Honduras – Dia Nueve
When we’d met with Juan and Jose the afternoon before to make final arrangements for our trip to the coffee plantation, Juan had told us to only bring our cameras and a water bottle. He said Jose would pick us up at 8am in his tuk-tuk and that we’d stop at a nice little restaurant in a Mayan village for a real authentic breakfast. I’m all about trying new things, but after some serious problems in Chihuahua, Mexico, and Lima, Peru, plus a minor incident in Istanbul, I was not up to trying an authentic breakfast in rural Honduras. Unfortunately, authentic usually means the food tastes good and the diarrhea comes free of charge. With that in mind, Dave and I got up and ready by 7am and scooted down to our favorite breakfast joint, Cafe Welchez, once again.
The breakfast was excellent, just as it had been the day before, and afterwards we headed back down the road to our hotel to pick our stuff up and wait for Jose. Before leaving the hotel we asked the guy at the front desk if he could arrange a 4:45am ride to the Hedman Alas bus station for us the next day. There was a lot of confusion, which I think was because they couldn’t understand why anyone would want to leave at 4:45am when the bus didn’t leave until 5:15am, but eventually he said “ok” and we left. Jose was out front so Dave and I piled into the back of his new little tuk-tuk and off we went. We rambled through town and then up the mountain past the Macaw sanctuary where we’d gone the day before and continued upwards. On the way Jose picked a girl up and gave her a ride up to Macaw Mountain. With the four of us in this little contraption we may have been doing 2 miles an hour at most of the mountain. Once the girl got off and we started down a small hill our weight became an advantage and we started hauling ass and that continued for a while – like Newton said, “an object in motion tends to stay in motion”.
After about 30 minutes we pulled up to a little family farmhouse and hopped out. Jose use to live outside of Copan Ruinas up in the mountains, possibly with his “grandfather” that supposedly owned the coffee plantation we were headed to, and therefore he knew almost everyone. Dave and I half-way believed his story because Jose had to be fairly well off to own a brand new tuk-tuk and a car. We headed inside the gate to this small farm and three little kids were over to the side cleaning coffee beans. The kids couldn’t have been more than 10-12 years old at the most. There was a long concrete aquaduct and they were washing the beans with water and pushing them around with some broom like thing. Nearby there was a large area with lots of coffee beans spread out drying on the ground.
Jose asked if we’d like to go inside the little kitchen and meet the people in there and see what a typical farmhouse looked like, so we said ‘sure’. We headed into the little kitchen area and I almost had to double over because the doors were maybe 5’6″, and that’s being generous. Inside there was a small wood fire oven and two old ladies who appeared to be the mother of the children and their grandmother. They were making fresh corn tortillas. When I say they were making fresh corn tortillas, I mean they were really MAKING fresh corn tortillas, not warming ones from a plastic bag. They had full corn kernels (from their garden) in a basket, then the mother was using a matate to actually grind the corn into flour, then they were adding water and pounding them out into tortillas and throwing them on the oven.
The best part about this was that it didn’t seem staged. I’ve been in scenarios where it felt very staged for the benefit of tourists, but this didn’t. The ladies both wiped their hands up and greeted Jose and ran out of the room and brought back tiny plastic chairs for Dave and I to sit down. They offered us a tortilla and we accepted. I wasn’t nervous about getting a stomach bug because they were really hot, but before I got too confident the mother rinsed off a plate using a bucket of water near the sink and threw the tortilla on it. Luckily it was fresh off the oven and had to have vaporized any water still on the plate because it burned my wand when I tried to pick it up. Another dubious culinary moment followed when she scooped an enormous wad of butter out of a small wooden bowl and slapped it on top of my tortilla. Jose told us that this was homemade butter. Lovely.
Actually, the buttered tortilla was excellent. I knew I had some cipro to take care of any stomach issues later so I smiled at Dave and ate it. Dave had a cup of their homemade coffee and said it was great but really strong. Jose told us that these woman never go to a store for anything. They have chickens for eggs, cows for milk/butter/cheese, coffee plants, gardens for vegetables, corn for tortillas, wheat for bread, and everything else you could ever want. We walked into their back yard and took a look at their larger wood fired oven where they make their bread, and the mother let all the chickens out of their roost for the day. After a few more minutes and some thank-yous, we left.
Our next stop was at another friend of Jose’s place. This time it was a little house/flower nursery. The lady had all sorts of colorful and exotic plants and was sitting on her front porch making baskets by hand to take down into Copan Ruinas later to sell. We walked around and took a look at some of the flowers and left shortly after. We continued up the mountain and the air had cooled down a lot. I don’t know what our elevation was, but it was about 85F-90F in Copan Ruinas and maybe 70F up in the mountains. We came to a crawl in front of this enormous house that Jose wanted us to see because it belonged to “a very rich man” who we found out had been a foreman for a general contractor in the US for about 20-25 years. He moved back to his native Honduras with all his savings and built a 5 car garaged palace that was the envy of all the locals.
After about 50 minutes of driving we reached the coffee plantation. We walked through a huge set of doors and saw the “modern” setup for processing coffee. Compared to what the little kids at the family farm had been using, this stuff was unbelieveable. There were piles of freshly picked coffee seeds with the beans still inside, there were large areas on the concrete where coffee was spread out to dry in groups based on the value of the beans, there was a huge automatic cleaning station setup and then long roasting beds where the beans sit on metal strainers while a fan blows hot air from a wood fire oven out underneath the beans. After about 5 minutes of climbing around on the equipment a truck pulled up with 5 guys in it and they started loading huge sacks (maybe 150lb) into the back of the pickup to take for packaging somewhere down in Copan Ruinas.
Jose told us how much the large sacks sold for, and it was something like $300-$800 depending on the quality of the beans. What really blew my mind was when he filled a 5 gallon bucket with seeds (two beans are inside each one) and said the pickers get 30 Lem per bucket ($1.58 per bucket). He said workers will pick 5-6 buckets in a day, and if it is an adult male who’s done it for many years he can sometimes get 7-8 buckets a day if he eats lunch in the fields and doesn’t stop. That means the best workers stand to make $12.63 in a 10 hour day of back breaking work. These poor guys couldn’t afford more than 2 cups of their own coffee at Starbucks with a day’s wage. It was sad…
The views, however, were incredible. The coffee plants covered all the surrounding mountains, and the view looking out over the valley was unreal. The plants were about 7-8 feet tall and had very few seeds on the ones we saw because the main harvesting season was over. We walked up through the plantation for about 15 minutes until we came to an area that was being harvested. We met the foreman who’s job is to stand there with a machete and make sure all the workers keep working without any problems. Jose said he use to be a foreman working for his grandfather before he moved to North Carolina. While Jose was talking to the foreman, I noticed a family picking seeds right beside the edge of the road. I couldn’t really see the father and mother too well, but they had two small children working with them and the little boy was too curious to keep working and he came out of the bushes and watched Dave and I for a few minutes. It was depressing to think about the dilemma US consumers create. Our endless thirst for goods creates jobs and generates cash flows in third world countries around the world, but at the same time it causes the exploitation of children and the poor. I felt bad that this family had to put their small children through such hard work at such young ages just to survive when I was spending money to simply visit another country. As much as I hate globalization, it made me think for a moment that spreading the wealth isn’t a complete evil, even though it is dragging the US down.
After a hike through the coffee plants and up to a lookout tower, then down through another roasting/bagging house, we hopped back in the tuk-tuk and headed back to the hotel. Even though Jose’s English was terrible, Dave and I had a blast and thought Jose showed us a wonderful time. I wish I could have beat Juan’s ass and taken the $20 we’d given him for half the tour yesterday and given it to Jose.
Once we were back at the hotel, we got showers and laid down to rest for a while. Eventually we rolled out of bed and headed into town to do a little souvenier shopping. We went to the little store that did Dave’s laundry and I picked up a few things for Jean. I bought her another purse (the first one was from the little girl’s in Rio Dulce), a t-shirt, some necklaces, and a few stickers and patches. We hit another much larger store and I wish I’d had a larger pack because one of the hammocks would have been nice. After Dave finished getting stuff for his family we went back to the hotel and relaxed some more. We also pulled everything out of our packs and folded stuff up and re-packed to maximize the space since we’d be heading out of town and on to the airport in about 12 hours.
Once it started to get dark we headed out to get something to eat. We’d seen an ad for a place called Twisted Tanya’s Restaurant on a bulletin board at Bruno’s in Rio Dulce and we’d read about it in one of the tour books, so we walked around for a while trying to find it. Eventually I went into a little tienda and asked where it was and the guy pointed straight up. We walked back outside and found a little opening with a staircase. At the top of the stairs was Twisted Tanya’s. The restaurant was incredible. Tanya is this cool red headed English lady who runs around making sure everything is ok and her husband is this black guy born in the Bronx but from Honduras’ Bay Islands (in the Caribbean), and he was the bar tender. They use to run a restaurant on the most famous Bay Island, Roatan.
I forgot the husband’s name but he was really cool. He explained everything on their menu in detail – it was all hand-written on a blackboard because it changes daily depending on what ingredients they have available. Dave and I were in luck because it was happy hour and drinks were half-price, so we threw caution to the wind and had our first drinks with ice in them – top shelf margaritas. Tanya’s husband told us that they purify their ice because if they didn’t the word would spread and hurt their business. In hind sight, it was true because neither Dave nor I ever got sick. We drank about 6 margaritas each and they were excellent. After a while Tanya’s husband set up three shots of the top shelf tequila on our table and told us he’d take a shot with us so we could finish the bottle that we started. He was great – funny, friendly, spoke perfect English, and answered every question we had.
We ordered the seafood wontons for an appetizers and they were superb. For my meal I ordered the option that came with split pea soup (had too much pepper), slow roasted beef with stuffed pepper and vegetables, and a slice of blackberry covered cheesecake. The meal was the best one I’d had on this trip. They played all kinds of great music, from Dead and Marley to more current stuff. Another table asked to hear some CCR so they played about 10 CCR songs. Dave and I sang along to Bad Moon Rising.
After dinner we thanked Tanya and her husband for an incredible last evening in Central America and walked back to our hotel completely satisfied…
Honduras – Dia Diez
Dave and I woke up at 3:30am and got ready and were in the hotel lobby by 4:30am. We waited around until 5am for the guy in the van to pull up and take us to the Hedman Alas bus station. When we got there we were amongst about 15 other gringos. The bus was VERY comfortable with a nice bathroom on board, an armed guard in the front, and they didn’t open the security gates at the depot until everyone was on the bus and the doors were closed. It was a little creepy that they were having each person pose for a digital picture before boarding. We assumed that it was so if the bus was hijacked and you were kidnapped or killed they’d have some record.
We had no problems and about 3 hours later we got to another Hedman Alas station in San Pedro Sula. Dave and I weren’t sure what to do so we sat down inside the depot wondering where our bags were and eventually someone came in the waiting room and asked if we were going to the airport and we said ‘yes’ and followed him outside. Dave and I were on a huge coach (same size we took from Copan) with only one other guy to the airport. When we got to the airport we got our luggage after showing our checked baggage tickets and then we went inside and checked in. We had tons of time to kill since it was around 9:30am and our plane wasn’t leaving until 4:50pm. I went to an ATM since both of us were officially out of cash, and pulled out $100. We ate lunch at Burger King and then went upstairs to get our exit stamps and clear customs, immigration and security. They charged us around $30 (US!) for our exit tax. Once we got through security we were stock in the tiny terminal (~6 gates) and the place was like something out of 1970.
The Guatemala City airport was under construction but generally pretty bad. The Flores airport was tiny and old. The airport in San Pedro Sula was old and had absolutely nothing to occupy your time. There weren’t any bookstands or magazine racks, no internet kiosks, no souvenier stands, nothing except a huge duty free store full of liquor, candy, and cologne. We waited and waited and waited and waited. I met some people from North Carolina down in Honduras with a Christian group on a mission trip which they do twice a year for 17 days at a time, and a guy with them had an Auburn hat on, so I didn’t like them.
We finally took off and flew to San Salvador, El Salvador – the capital. El Salvador is the whipping post for all of Central America. All the locals we talked to consider Costa Rica to be the best, Guatemala to be number two, and Honduras to be a close third (people in Honduras constantly ask if you like it better than Guate). All of them say El Salvador sucks. The main gang that makes Central America so dangerous, MS-13, is based out of El Salvador. El Salvador has basically no tourism industry because it doesn’t have Mayan ruins like Mexico’s Yucatan, Honduras, or Guatemala, and it doesn’t have pristine rain forests like Costa Rica. El Salvador is the poorest country in Central America, which is saying something since they’re all very poor. Surprisingly, the have one of the nicest airports I’ve been to outside of Europe and Japan. They had tons of nice stores (nicer than CVG airport in Cincinnati), English and Spanish bookstores, quite a few restaurants, free internet kiosks, and the cleanest public restroom I’d ever seen south of San Diego. At least Salvadorans can be proud of their world-class airport. If I ever have to sit in an airport in Central America again for 7 hours, it’ll be in San Salvador, not San Pedro Sula.
We had a long flight home and after waiting FOREVER to get our luggage at LAX we cleared customs and immigration. We only stood outside for about 5 minutes before one of Dave’s daughters pulled up and picked us up. An hour later I was finally at home.
It was a great trip and Dave was a lot of fun to travel with. I hope I have another chance to go travel with him again in the future.