On New Years Eve we crossed into country number five of our bike tour: Honduras. In the week previous, Jacob had broken both front and rear derailers rendering his bike into single speed mode, and I, suffering from some stomach infection, couldnâ€™t hold down anything more than plain tortillas. With the both of us enduring system failures, we desperately needed some R&R. Luckily the resort advertisement billboards lining the highway hinted that we were approaching an appropriate destination for a much needed break. Faded and discolored by countless tropical storms, they still managed to conjure the image of breathtaking white sand beaches, coral reef diving, rivers of rich rum, and a booming night life.
Upon arriving in Puerto Cortes we were disappointed to find a gloomy industrial port city; suspension cranes towering over warehouses, eighteen wheeled semiâ€™s racing out of freight yards. An advertisement displaying a large hand gun offered directions to the largest arms store in Central America. The ambience made me daydream of shady underworld dealings which, perhaps wasnâ€™t completely far fetched considering that this port was used as a sitting area by private foreign interests for soviet made firearms destined for Nicaraguan Contras in the 80â€™s (1). We changed our currency (stuffing large denominations under the soles of our shoes â€“Goat in the secret compartment of his top-hat) and walked around looking for a cheap hotel.
â€œCan you feel the Holiday cheer?â€� Jacob enquired, as we passed through a nearly deserted park dimly lit with Christmas lights.
â€œFestive.â€� I nodded. â€œThough, only a fool would stick around for the party without a flashy piece to shoot holes in the sky. Weâ€™ve got to visit the arms depot.â€�
Unfortunately the gun shop was already closed, and not wanting to make the mistake of screwing up the secret after-hour handshake I decide to find medicine for my stomach bug instead. At a Pharmacy, an old lady who claimed to be a medical practitioner diagnosed my symptoms as amoeba, and advised me to take an over the counter anti-diuretic.
â€œIâ€™m already stopped up.â€� I pleaded with her in Spanish. â€œI havenâ€™t been eating. I want to know what I can take to kill the Amoebaâ€�.
She starred at me quizzically, hinting that this tiny pill was all I needed.
A man standing next to her, who I took to be her friend or co-worker, finally interrupted the stand-off, rephrasing what I had already said. She deliberated his words, heaved a sigh and fetched two different packages; one holding ten white tablets, the other holding four green tablets.
â€œThese are more expensiveâ€¦â€� She pointed to the one holding the green tablets (the package was marked Secnidazol). â€œbut more effective.â€�
As I was about to leave my translator waved to me with a package of his own Secnidazol.
â€œYou have the amoeba too?â€� I asked.
â€œOf course.â€� He winced. â€œAnd where did you get yours.â€�
â€œGuatemala.â€� I said. â€œIâ€™m pretty sure a bag of chicharrones (pork rinds) did me in.â€�
â€œMan, they have dirty food in Guatemala.â€� He chuckled to himself.
â€œAnd hereâ€¦â€� I inquired.
â€œOhâ€¦ uh.â€� he abruptly stopped laughing. â€œIn some places its worse.â€�
We found a cheap hotel room was just barely large enough to accommodate the three of us. A giant spider lurked on the wall above a leaky sink, and a hundred tiny bars of grimy soap clung like white leeches to the window sill above the shower stall. The last bit of advice my pharmacy translator had bestowed upon me before we parted was: â€œHere you will most certainly be shot for your cell phone… just your cell phoneâ€�. None of us were particularly eager to venture outside to check out the night life.
All of us suffered from nightmares and awoke restless and itching. Nothing was open (except for a few Liquor vendors) and it didnâ€™t seem that anything would be at any point in the day. The dusty streets of post-fiesta Puerto Cortes were littered with garbage and occasional un-detonated m80s. I searched around hoping to find some relatively sober locals who could relate a sense of the nightâ€™s festivities. All I found were tongues bloated from perpetual soaking in Aguardiente (cheap cane liqour) flapping incoherently from bruised and busted faces.
While in the process of aimlessly wandering, wondering what to do with ourselves a man flagged us down in the parque central. Accompanied by his eight year old son, he was hastily scribbling some information being dictated by a cheerful woman of corresponding age. As the woman (beaming with delight) stood up, the man introduced himself. All of us immediately forgot his name. He worked on Uitla (The Bay Islands) as a guide of some sorts, and claimed to be a â€œchampionâ€� in a Honduran bike race (though due to car accident some years ago he was far past his prime).
â€œCome out to my beautiful home,â€� he said. â€œWe live in a tranquil fishing village just a few kilometers down the road.â€�
Our brains dully pondered his offer. Hazily I scanned my surroundings; where was the bustling underworld, dangerous and intriguing? It being nearly noon, the sun was high enough to intensify the unattractive desolation of the ghostly still town. A few locals, perhaps beyond hope of recuperation from the night of celebration, had melted into stains on the sidewalk. Despite the heat, they sought no shade and their coinciding urine puddles proved somewhat resistant to natural rate of evaporation. Not one of us could form a decision.
â€œRum flows like water out there, and fish, delicious fried fish!â€� the man continued to tempt us (quite oblivious to the drunks in our immediate vicinity).
Before I realized what was happening the man had decided for us, and was lifting his son onto the back of my bike. He then set out in front of us, leading the way to Promised Land on foot. Goat had to convince him that it would convenient for all of us if he just accepted a ride on one of the bikes.
â€œWe arenâ€™t far at all,â€� cried out the man as he threw a leg over the back of Goatâ€™s bike. â€œTwo kilometers at most!â€�
After eight kilometers of riding I finally stopped expecting the village around every corner.
I turned to Jacob; â€œThis guy wouldnâ€™t have made this trip by nightfall if he chose to keep walkingâ€�.
â€œItâ€™s possible heâ€™d never make it, not with his post accident knee.â€� Jacob shouted back. â€œErh, maybe he didnâ€™t believe our bit about coming from Alaskaâ€¦ wanted to make sure weâ€™re for real.â€�
My young passenger piped up, â€œLook, do you see the oceanâ€�. (It hadnâ€™t occurred to me that he understood English.)
Indeed the brown murky waters were now visible, dashing my expectations of crystalline perfection.
At that point we entered a small Garifuna fishing village. It was like crossing to another continent, as the men, women, and children of dark complexion gathered on the beach, or on front porches waved and shouted out to us.
The Garifuna descended from populations of African slaves and the Arawkan of northern Brazil that migrated up to the Caribbean coast. Today they number nearly 500,000 people, spread throughout Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. They are united by a common Garifuna language, which they use interchangeably with Spanish (or English in the case of ex-British mandate, Belize).
The locals appeared to recognize the man and his son, yet it was immediately evident that they didnâ€™t live in the village and had no house to offer. They urged us to stay anyway, assuring us that we could pitch our hammocks in the yard of a man who appeared to be either ill or wasted.
â€œYou can have the shack.â€� The man seemed to belch his words.
A few feet from the door was a puddle of diarrhea, and on his mattress were piles of soiled laundry.
â€œThanks.â€� Offered Jacob â€œWeâ€™ll have to decide who gets the bed.â€�
Meanwhile, there was plenty entertainment to be had, as the locals, dressed in skirts of brown grass and colorful masks performed dances to the traditional Garifuna music known as Punta. Each dancer moseyed up to the small drum circle, and paused as if waiting for bath water to cool that essential half degree, before jumping in. Then their hips broke out in hyper-motion as their skittish feet shuffled back and forth. Their whole lower body would vibrate intensely to the break neck pace set by the drummers. Each dancer limited themselves to quick bursts of rapid fire grooves, then picked up their share of communally contributed Limpiras (Honduran currency) strewn on the ground, and swiftly leapt to the side to accommodate the next participant. As people began running out of small change to throw on the ground, the dancers became more hesitant to expend their energy. The dancing fizzled out, and the locals moved on to interrogating their unlikely company: gringo bikers.
Small towns are generally notorious for spreading news of strangers at wildfire pace. Evidently word had gotten around that Jacob was in need of a derailer for within forty five minutes of our arrival a man offered him a used derailer wrapped up in newspaper for fifty Limpiras (a few bucks). It had been fetched at the cost of great effort in ransacking the room of an absent friend.
After the business transaction was completed the man obliged us to eat with him. â€œWe are family now, like brothers, we will fry up a fish and eat well together.â€� He proclaimed merrily.
Yet on second thought he realized that he hadnâ€™t caught anything that day. â€œNo matter,â€� He assured us. â€œIâ€™m sure one of the other pescaderos has some, all we need is a little money to buy some fish and plantains.â€�
Goat declined his offer, using as an excuse a date with a friend in the next town.
â€œWhatâ€™s the deal?â€� I engaged Goat, surprised by the sudden emergence of this information.
â€œI met this chill guy,â€� Goat responded coolly. â€œwith a house on the beach, who wants to hang out with us.â€�
Apparently, while I was busy hiding from ladrones under moldy motel bed sheets back in Puerto Cortes, Goat had befriended a body guard for a joint that sold lottery tickets. The body guard had provided Goat with his name, Cappuccino, and the directions: â€œjust show up in town and ask around, they all know Cappuccino!â€�
Fortunately he was right and we were directed to the house by nearly every passerby we encountered. Simultaneous with our arrival, Cappuccino mounted on a bicycle, rolled onto the sandy path to his beach abode. “You are here!” he shouted, “Do you see this. Look around you well! Do you like what you see?” The property was lavished with the shade of many palm trees. â€œIf you go just a few kilometers down the road you will not find any shade at all.â€� Cappuccino proudly asserted.
His beach front property did indeed have paradise written all over. Benches and lawn chairs fashioned from drift wood were arranged under the shade of palms as if imitation of a resort lounge area.
â€œI heard you guys danced the punta down the way.â€� Said the all knowing Cappuccino.
â€œHow the hell did you find that out.â€� We all glanced at him bewildered.
Cappuccino just smiled, shrugged his shoulders and went off to procure us fresh coconut juice. He was struggling with a machete, cursing its dullness as I threw back my first dose of Secnidazole — a high-dose one-day treatment, not clinically approved in the U.S.A. Bracing myself on my hammock, I attempted to relax and fall asleep, imagining my amoeba helpless and besieged.
Within an hour of setting up camp the sea was roused by a strong wind. I had been dangling on my hammock, toes lightly brushing the sand, when a terrible gale nearly tore my ropes from their stakes. I heard Cappuccino calling me, “Get your stuff into my house, man. The Storm is coming”.
Light headed from the medication, and aware only of the fact that the shack was the territory of Cappuccino and his lady, I was hesitant to obey the command. When finally I began dismantling my floating bed, the wind sent it flying into a brush pile of barbed palmetto branches. As I was untangling the hammock chords the rain began to fall. High velocity water drops sailed through the wind with abrasive force and my clothes were wringing-wet in minutes.
Finally, having dropped my belongings on the dirt floor of Cappuccinos shack, I perused the cramped enclosure. Almost immediately I had a foreboding sense of Cabin Fever â€“ that the sight and odor of my biking companions in these cramped quarters would unnerve me irrevocably. Cappuccino ran into the house and threw us an affected expression as he braced the door with his ample body (his look read: The Wolf was right outside the door, blustering with all his might). A soggy cigarette kept one of his hands occupied, frustrating his attempts to fasten the door to its latch. Jacob finally had to take over.
“Oh sh!!t!” exclaimed Cappuccino between drags from his cigarette. “Oh Sh!!t.” He repeated with greater alarm. “You boys are scared.â€� He paused, smoke lingering around his mouth as he scrutinized our faces. â€œNo youâ€™re not scared are you?”
â€œNo man, weâ€™re used to wild weather.â€� Jacob tried reassuring him.
Presently Cappuccino went around the plastic tarp that served as a divider between his bed and the rest of the one roomed house. “Oh shh!!!t” He roared again, the degree of distress in his voice sounding way over the top when his lady friend, pacing around without a care in her head, looked mildly bored.
He came running up to us. “My bedâ€™s already soaked through. We have to do something”. An eight by four foot Coca cola billboard sign was all we had to work with. No nails were required in applying the billboard sign to the leaky piece of wall; the incessant gale held it steadfast. Surveying the quick fix, we realized that very little was achieved. The rain still blew through the bamboo wall.
Without explaining a course of action, Cappuccino ran away, leaving my two biking companions, myself, and Cappuccinoâ€™s lady to stand around looking significantly uninspired. Luckily the valiant man returned quickly with a long strip of rubberized canvas.
“Oh sh!!t, get the nails, you (pointing to any one of us) help me with the stool.”
We were all munching sugar cookies that Cappuccinosâ€™ lady friend had solemnly passed around like a captain distributing last smokes to the crew as the haul took on water.
â€œNow, man.â€� Cappuccino wailed again, â€œBefore my house blows awayâ€�.
We nailed the strip of weatherproofing material to the leaky wall. Then Cappuccino attempted to heave a concrete cinder block up onto the corrugated metal roof to keep it from blowing away. Failing to provide enough thrust, the block fell back down, nearly crushing Cappuccinos head. Everyone took a step backwards, our limbs anxiously writhing as he made several more precarious attempts. Goat finally ventured forward to assist in the launch but Cappuccino, visibly aggravated, motioned him away.
â€œStand back!â€� he screamed.
With a grunt, he heaved the brick into place then turned around, face beaming.
Suffice it to say, we improved the quality of life in that dimly lit shack thanks to the ingenuity of our hurricane relief expert, (Indeed he had a special framed certificate seemingly in imitation of a P.H.D, commending “Cappuccino for Valor in aiding relief efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch.â€�) and settled down to find as much comfort as could be had in the small shack.
The front door of the shelter, having been placed facing the sea, was the object of much grief throughout the evening. Its securement depended entirely on the creativity of the person tying its short piece of rope between two nails sticking out of the adjoining wall.
Inevitably the door would rip open and a flurry of brackish dampness would disrupt our habitational equilibrium. Luckily for me, my medication succeeded in alleviating my disfunctional bowel system and, as I was spared from running to the outdoor-latrine every half hour, I dealt little with the ineffectual door.
Cappuccino insisted the storm would not live through the morning, yet the winds held their pace all throughout the next day. Cappuccino brazenly took off for work on his bicycle, and left us holed up in his shack.
Further up and down the Caribbean coast, people did not fair so well in the storm. We were to read in the local papers of two bodies found in the mouth of a river not more than a few miles from our shelter â€“victims, perhaps, of a fishing boat wreck in the tempestuous sea. The first cold front of 2008 caused waves reaching sixteen feet and winds of up to forty three miles per hour across Central America.
This being a land much used to frequent storms of formidable vitality, I found it difficult to imagine how people could grow accustomed to periods of forced inactivity, much less how they could recuperate when a hurricane like Mitch reduced their homes to debris. After only a day and a half of being shut up in that cramped shelter I was already feeling stir crazy.
In a way I suppose we were blessed with the rest and relaxation we had sought in coming to the Caribbean Coast; Reading and lounging were about the only sane things to do with the gale raging outdoors. Jacob could now ride with multiple gears at his disposal, and I could hold down food. When finally the wind died down enough, we furiously packed our belongings and took off at a sprint.
We had to pass through downtown Puerto Cortes again to reach the highway. As soon as we hit the busy city streets, a hard rain began to fall. Goat went to an internet cafÃ© to research our route through the rest of Honduras. As I waited for him, sitting on a chair, I saw a man rise form his seat, take his giant pistol off of the computer desk, and stick it down the front of his jeans. The man saw me watching him carry out this procedure, drew a smile and walked towards me.
â€œThat your bike outside,â€� he asked.
I was too preoccupied, trying hard not to stare at the ridiculous bulge in his pants, to form a yes or no.
â€œBad day to be riding through the city, No?â€� he went on amiably enough.
I managed a slight laugh and nod. Then he tried to offer a bit of encouragement that I didnâ€™t entirely understand (something like, if it rains the very first day of the new-year, it wonâ€™t start flooding until mid-April).
â€œQue le vaya bien (fair thee well)â€�. He said before taking off.
Goat followed behind him.
â€œWho was that?â€� he asked
â€œLetâ€™s get the hell out of here.â€� He said as he stuck two hand-drawn renditions of a Honduran road map into a plastic case. â€œ
The man with gun may have been right about the weather, but we werenâ€™t about to stick around to see if things would clear up. Too worrisome was the threat of unpredictable storms obstructing our safe passage. We were heading back to the mountains.
1 See: Inquiries Look At Origin of Arms Sitting unclaimed in Honduran Warehouse, Stephen Engelberg with James Lemoyne, New York Times Feb. 22 1987