A Note from Honduras (1995)
Honduran summer mornings are heavy. The heat of the day carries deep into the night and consequently morning brings no relief. Seeking cooler weather in high mountain valleys, we rent a small Toyota van and set out from La Ceiba across the littoral plane thick with palm oil and pineapple plantations for the Mayan ruins at Santa Rosa de Copan.
What passes for paved road in Honduras is something of a crap shoot. We encounter smooth stretches that linger for tens of kilometers, only to be confronted by bus-sized maws that would swallow a vehicle were it not for the safety cones and easels placed 3 meters from their hungry edge.
On heavily traveled routes, approaching a village is hazardous. An otherwise well maintained road turns to potholes and gravel several hundred meters from the first house. It’s a sort of “toll road” set-up. Maybe “banditry” is a better descriptor. Boys stand roadside with shovels, tossing gravel in a disingenuous public works project, filling potholes they themselves created. They exhort in staccato Spanish, hands out for money, “Tips? We are paving your way!” I thought them sincere and charming the first time I saw this. The first time my head hit the roof of the Toyota van, thanks to the potholes.
Bouncing along I offer propitiating smiles to the boys, but after the third village, the same racket and the second time my head collides with the roof, I realize the sham of it all. From now on, eyes forward, grinding gears, and mumbling “fuckers…”. Through trial and error I find that 70kph is a smoother ride over potholes than 20kph. So I work back up through the gears to hit a respectable 110kph on the other side of the village until we approach the next one. This time though, I tap the brakes dropping to 70kph and its “all business” through the rough patch. Glibly to myself, “I’m a local now.” No sympathy. You can kindly fuck off with your disingenuous road works….
Roads like these take us out past San Pedro Sula and up the mountains and to the distant monumental Maya ruins near the border with Guatemala. We’re lucky today, only two military check points slow our progress. The army is hoping to nab a gang of Kalishnakov-brandishing, roadside bandits. The gang (self-described rebels) stop buses and passenger cars demanding cash and jewelry. It’s the real deal here. Highwaymen and stagecoach robbery. These things still happen in much of the world. We forget that in the US.
Hondurans raise their cattle in the mountains where it’s cooler. Hot cattle need lots of water to maintain weight because weight means money. Thus, cattle ranching in high mountain valleys. Castro encountered this problem when they tried dairy farming in Cuba to produce milk for ice cream. Tropical heat is not conducive cattle raising.
The mountain roads hair-pin and jostle and to this you add the danger of hard-charging cattle trucks. They run wide-open on straightaways and blind corners alike. The squeal of hot brakes is the only warning you get. They appear in violent bursts of rust, oxidized paint, and great, rumbling billows of sooty, diesel exhaust.
Mountain peasants gather in mobs at makeshift bus stops - precarious, cliff-side turnouts. Approaching one of these my naive eyes fix on a colorfully clothed gathering that glows gold in the dropping sun. One of many opium visions that lull the Western mind to fantasies of lions and lambs dwelling in Biblical harmony. Honduras doesn’t allow of such foolishness for long though.
Minutes later, rounding an outside turn on a mountain top, harsh reality. I ease the Toyota van to a stop. In the middle of my lane is a split and twisted corpse. A young boy of maybe seven years. His mother stands over him, head buried in hands, stomach convulsing, chest heaving.
A cattle truck sits quiet in a pull-out 30 meters on, its cargo mooing anxiously. The driver in a dirty, short sleeve dress shirt, wrinkled slacks and worn dress shoes engaged in matter of fact conversation with a man from the group. By way of explanation the driver casually motioned back toward the curve in the road. There is no argument. The facts of the matter are plain. The child chased after a ball on a blind curve. The mother was too late.
Thirty people in a backlit glow stand expressionless in the dropping sun. I don’t struggle to comprehend. These things make sense to me. Cold realities speak to me. No rising anger in this matter of fact world.
No sympathy from the bystanders either. Rusting steel and hot asphalt. Real. Fast. Heart-breaking. For all her wild beauty and lulling balms, Honduras has an intensity that grabs doughy Westerners by their fat rolls and shakes them to life – a sticky, uncomfortable awareness.
No excuses, no second chances, no dreams, and sadly for peasants… no way out.
I dully fumble for my 35mm Minolta. This opium dream has me as the unlikely winner of a Pulitzer for photojournalism. Light of the Golden Hour; a hushed crowd; a mother sobbing for her son; soft in the background, the detached conversation with the boy’s unfortunate killer. A photograph on the order of the nude Vietnamese girl fleeing her village in driving rain in the aftermath of a napalm attack. Or a vulture biding his time as life slips away from a distended-belly, African boy.
The child’s mother, in her tender twenties, and the boy she’d devoted seven or eight years to feeding, loving, and admonishing, was gone. Simple. Plain. A cascade of tears. Gone to the fading sound of laughter and grinding brakes. Eighteen skidding tires and a diesel motor choking to a stop that break a heart for all time. And still the crowd stands detached, silent, betraying no emotion.
In much of the world there are no screaming sirens, no attending police officers, no horror stricken by-standers, or “sympathetic” attorneys. That is death in my decadent Western world. On a lonely Honduran road 90 kilometers from San Pedro Sula, the Reaper comes with the dropping sun and mountain air whispering of sweet flowers in verdant canyons below. No tears for a mother saying goodbyes too soon and too late. I leave the moment sacred and abstaine from the camera.
I ease out the clutch on the Toyota, murmur the better parts of a prayer for the departed, and mentally cross myself out of some distant, familiar habit. Humming tires and cool, heavy air in the closing light. Las Ruinas Copan and her Mayan mysteries sing with lyrical word of mountain valley mists, full-breasted native women with coy, toothy smiles eager to please, and some of the better tobacco this side of Pinar del Rio, Cuba….